Biomass is plant matter such as trees, grasses, agricultural crops or other biological material. It can be used as a solid fuel, or converted into liquid or gaseous forms, for the production of electric power, heat, chemicals, or fuels.
Sources of Biomass
The most common form of biomass is wood. Wood was the main source of energy in the U.S. and the rest of the world until the mid-1800s. Biomass continues to be a major source of energy in much of the developing world. In the United States, wood and waste (bark, sawdust, wood chips, and wood scrap) provide only about 2 percent of the energy we use today.
Burning Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
Burning municipal solid waste (MSW or garbage) and wood waste to produce energy, means that less of it has to get buried in landfills. Plants that burn waste to make electricity must use technology to prevent harmful gases and particles from coming out of their smokestacks. The particles that are filtered out are added to the ash that is removed from the bottom of the furnace. Because the ash may contain harmful chemicals and metals, it must be disposed of carefully. Sometimes the ash can be used for road work or building purposes.
Collecting landfill gas or biogas
Collecting and using landfill and biogas reduces the amount of methane that is released into the air. Methane is one of the greenhouse gases associated with global climate change. Many landfills find it cheaper to just burn-off the gas that they collect because the gas needs to be processed before it can be put into natural gas pipelines.
Since the early 1990s ethanol has been blended into gasoline to reduce harmful carbon monoxide emissions. Blending ethanol into gasoline also reduces toxic pollutants found in gasoline but causes more “evaporative emissions” to escape. In order to reduce evaporative emissions, gasoline requires extra processing before it can be blended with ethanol. When burned, ethanol does release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. But growing plants for ethanol may reduce greenhouse gases since plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen as they grow.
Biodiesel is much less polluting than petroleum diesel. It results in much lower emissions of almost every pollutant: sulfur oxide, particulates, carbon monoxide, air toxics, and unburned hydrocarbons. Biodiesel does have nitrogen oxide emissions that are about 10 percent higher though. Blending biodiesel into petroleum diesel can help reduce emissions. Biodiesel contains almost no sulfur and can help reduce sulfur in diesel fuel used throughout the country.