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What is Biomass?

A man chopping wood for use as biopower.
Sugar cane biomass is used to make ethanol.
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  • Originally Written By: Shannon Kietzman
  • Revised By: Bott
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2014
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Biological material from plants and some animals that can be turned into fuel is known as biomass. When burned, biomass can create energy in the form of electricity, heat, or chemical energy; however, biomass does not have to be burned to be useful. For example, garbage usually includes plant and animal products, and when left to rot can create a gas called methane, which is often stored to be used for heat and power. There are three types of biomass: biopower, bioproducts, and biofuels.

How it Works

Every plant contains components that can give large outputs of energy through a process known as photosynthesis; biomass takes advantage of these components, as well as the energy found in a plant’s photosynthesis process, to create fuel. A plant is composed of cells, water, and the compounds used in photosynthesis, the process of using carbon dioxide and the sun's energy to provide a plant with the food, or carbohydrates, it needs to grow. Biomass takes the components of a plant and creates a mixture of three-quarters carbohydrates and one-quarter plant matter; these carbohydrates are mixed with other plant matter in order to create chemicals, fuel, or energy.

Biopower

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Biopower uses plant matter and converts it to steam. This steam is used to power things such as coal engines, wood stoves, and steam engines. Many people use the simplest form of biomass on a regular basis. Chopping down older trees, harvesting the wood, and burning it indoors in a fireplace or wood stove produces heat. This is a form biopower.

Bioproducts

Bioproducts created from organic plant or animal matter and can be in the form of chemicals, materials, or energy. Some examples include cleaning chemicals made primarily from plants and biodegradable plastics also made from plant material. It is thought that new bioproducts will eventually replace the current petroleum-based chemicals and fuel that most automobiles rely on.

Biofuels

With oil costs rising drastically, biomass is an effective alternative to oil products in the form of biofuel, which can be used to fuel vehicles and is made of plant matter. One example is bioethanol, which is mixed with gasoline and used by some states to fuel vehicles. A combination of gasoline and bioethanol is often preferred because it runs cleaner than straight gasoline and is far more cost effective. The plant matter is converted into a combination of ethanol and alcohol and can be used to replace a percentage of the gasoline being used.

In 2005, more than 200 gas stations began offering an 85% mixture of bioethanol and gasoline. This fuel is cheaper than pure gasoline and is more friendly for the environment. As an added incentive, dealers who offer bioethanol mixtures are now given tax credits of up to $1 US dollar per gallon.

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