How does biomass work? And what is biomass? Biomass is organic, plant-based material that is carbon-based. It is used as a source of fuel. The carbon it contains is absorbed as CO2 from the atmosphere by plants using the sun’s energy. When plants are broken down it releases the carbon back into the environment as either CO2 (carbon dioxide) or methane (CH4).
This ‘breaking down’ process can happen via burning, or by micro-organisms. Micro-organisms occur naturally, but this process, called anaerobic digestion (AD) can be accelerated and used on an industrial scale.
Biomass v fossil fuels
Burning biomass as a fuel differs significantly from using fossil fuels. Biomass takes carbon out of the atmosphere, locks it into its matter for a short period, then releases it into the atmosphere a short while later. This cycle, (called the carbon cycle) is comparatively short, and does not increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over time.
Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, are fossilised plant matter including wood and other plant material that absorbed carbon millions of years ago, taking it out of the atmosphere and locking it in the ground. Fossil fuels unlock this prehistoric carbon when they are broken down – by burning for example – and on releasing it increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
“Biomass produces a fraction of the carbon emissions of fossil fuels, and its use can generate environmental benefits”
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Biomass can be directly processed plant material (such as wood pellets), or the waste from animals that have consumed it (chicken manure used to produce methane, for example). There are various categories:
Wood – new wood from forestry, or the waste from arboriculture or wood processing
Energy crops – grown specifically for energy applications
Agricultural by-products – residues from harvesting or processing
Food waste – from manufacturers, preparation and processing plants, and waste from consumers
Industrial waste – waste and by-products from industrial and manufacturing processes