Biomass is matter usually thought of as garbage. Some of it is just stuff lying around -- dead trees, tree branches, yard clippings, left-over crops, wood chips (like in the picture to the right), and bark and sawdust from lumber mills. It can even include used tires and livestock manure.
Your trash, paper products that can't be recycled into other paper products, and other household waste are normally sent to the dump. Your trash contains some types of biomass that can be reused. Recycling biomass for fuel and other uses cuts down on the need for "landfills" to hold garbage.
This stuff nobody seems to want can be used to produce electricity, heat, compost material or fuels. Composting material is decayed plant or food products mixed together in a compost pile and spread to help plants grow.
California produces more than 60 million bone dry tons of biomass each year. Of this total, five million bone dry tons is now burned to make electricity. This is biomass from lumber mill wastes, urban wood waste, forest and agricultural residues and other feed stocks.
If all of it was used, the 60 million tons of biomass in California could make close to 2,000 megawatts of electricity for California's growing population and economy. That's enough energy to make electricity for about two million homes!
How biomass works is very simple. The waste wood, tree branches and other scraps are gathered together in big trucks. The trucks bring the waste from factories and from farms to a biomass power plant. Here the biomass is dumped into huge hoppers. This is then fed into a furnace where it is burned. The heat is used to boil water in the boiler, and the energy in the steam is used to turn turbines and generators (see Chapter 8).
Biomass can also be tapped right at the landfill with burning waster products. When garbage decomposes, it gives off methane gas. You'll remember in chapters 8 and 9 that natural gas is made up of methane. Pipelines are put into the landfills and the methane gas can be collected. It is then used in power plants to make electricity. This type of biomass is called landfill gas.
A similar thing can be done at animal feed lots. In places where lots of animals are raised, the animals - like cattle, cows and even chickens - produce manure. When manure decomposes, it also gives off methane gas similar to garbage. This gas can be burned right at the farm to make energy to run the farm.
Using biomass can help reduce global warming compared to a fossil fuel-powered plant. Plants use and store carbon dioxide (CO2) when they grow. CO2 stored in the plant is released when the plant material is burned or decays. By replanting the crops, the new plants can use the CO2 produced by the burned plants. So using biomass and replanting helps close the carbon dioxide cycle. However, if the crops are not replanted, then biomass can emit carbon dioxide that will contribute toward global warming.
So, the use of biomass can be environmentally friendly because the biomass is reduced, recycled and then reused. It is also a renewable resource because plants to make biomass can be grown over and over.
Today, new ways of using biomass are still being discovered. One way is to produce ethanol, a liquid alcohol fuel. Ethanol can be used in special types of cars that are made for using alcohol fuel instead of gasoline. The alcohol can also be combined with gasoline. This reduces our dependence on oil – a non-renewable fossil fuel.
Next chapter is about Geothermal Energy.