Converting biomass into liquid fuels for transportation.
Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels - biofuels - for our transportation needs (cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and trains). The two most common types of biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel .
Ethanol is an alcohol, the same found in beer and wine. It is made by fermenting any biomass high in carbohydrates (starches, sugars, or celluloses) through a process similar to brewing beer. Ethanol is mostly used as a fuel additive to cut down a vehicle's carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. But flexible-fuel vehicles, which run on mixtures of gasoline and up to 85% ethanol, are now available.
Corn can be harvested to produce ethanol. Credit: Warren Gretz
Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol (usually methanol) with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking greases. It can be used as an additive to reduce vehicle emissions (typically 20%) or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines.
Other biofuels include methanol and reformulated gasoline components. Methanol, commonly called wood alcohol, is currently p roduced from natural gas, but could also be produced from biomass. There are a number of ways to convert biomass to methanol, but the most likely approach is gasification. Gasification involves vaporizing the biomass at high temperatures, then removing impurities from the hot gas and passing it through a catalyst, which converts it into methanol.
Most reformulated gasoline components produced from biomass are pollution-reducing fuel additives, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE).
Burning biomass directly, or converting it into a gaseous fuel or oil, to generate electricity.
Biopower, or biomass power, is the use of biomass to generate electricity. There are six major types of biopower systems: direct-fired , cofiring , gasification , anaerobic digestion , pyrolysis , and small, modular .
Most of the biopower plants in the world use direct-fired systems. They burn bioenergy feedstocks directly to produce steam. This steam is usually captured by a turbine, and a generator then converts it into electricity. In some industries, the steam from the power plant is also used for manufacturing processes or to heat buildings. These are known as combined heat and power facilities. For instance, wood waste is often used to produce both electricity and steam at paper mills.
Wood waste produced by nearby companies fuels this 50-megawatt biomass power plant in California. Credit: Warren Gretz
Many coal-fired power plants can use cofiring systems to significantly reduce emissions, especially sulfur dioxide emissions. Cofiring involves using bioenergy feedstocks as a supplementary energy source in high efficiency boilers.
Gasification systems use high temperatures and an oxygen-starved environment to convert biomass into a gas (a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane). The gas fuels what's called a gas turbine, which is very much like a jet engine, only it turns an electric generator instead of propelling a jet.
The decay of biomass produces a gas - methane - that can be used as an energy source. In landfills, wells can be drilled to release the methane from the decaying organic matter. Then pipes from each well carry the gas to a central point where it is filtered and cleaned before burning. Methane also can be produced from biomass through a process called anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion involves using bacteria to decompose organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
Methane can be used as an energy source in many ways. Most facilities burn it in a boiler to produce steam for electricity generation or for industrial processes. Two new ways include the use of microturbines and fuel cells. Microturbines have outputs of 25 to 500 kilowatts. About the size of a refrigerator, they can be used where there are space limitations for power production. Methane can also be used as the "fuel" in a fuel cell. Fuel cells work much like batteries but never need recharging, producing electricity as long as there's fuel.
In addition to gas, liquid fuels can be produced from biomass through a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis occurs when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. The biomass then turns into a liquid called pyrolysis oil, which can be burned like petroleum to generate electricity. A biopower system that uses pyrolysis oil is being commercialized.
Several biopower technologies can be used in small, modular systems. A small, modular system generates electricity at a capacity of 5 megawatts or less. This system is designed for use at the small town level or even at the consumer level. For example, some farmers use the waste from their livestock to provide their farms with electricity. Not only do these systems provide renewable energy, they also help farmers and ranchers meet environmental regulations.
Small, modular systems also have potential as distributed energy resources. Distributed energy resources refer to a variety of small, modular power-generating technologies that can be combined to improve the operation of the electricity delivery system.
Converting biomass into chemicals for making products that typically are made from petroleum.
Whatever products we can make from fossil fuels, we can make using biomass. These bioproducts, or biobased products, are not only made from renewable sources, they also often require less energy to produce than petroleum-based products.
Researchers have discovered that the process for making biofuels - releasing the sugars that make up starch and cellulose in plants - also can be used to make antifreeze, plastics, glues, artificial sweeteners, and gel for toothpaste.
Biomass can be used to produce a variety of biodegradable plastic products. Credit: Warren Gretz
Other important building blocks for bioproducts include carbon monoxide and hydrogen. When biomass is heated with a small amount of oxygen present, these two gases are produced in abundance. Scientists call this mixture biosynthesis gas. Biosynthesis gas can be used to make plastics and acids, which can be used in making photographic films, textiles, and synthetic fabrics.
When biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, it forms pyrolysis oil. A chemical called phenol can be extracted from pyrolysis oil. Phenol is used to make wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation.