Biomass and Biofuels
Fuels in use today, like coal and oil, are made from fossils, plants, and animals which died thousands of years ago. Biofuels are fuels made from crops which have just been harvested. Biofuels are produced from biomass which contains chemical energy stored from the sun. Biofuel (also called agrofuel) is an abbreviation for bio-organic fuel. It describes any plant or animal which can burn and be used for fuel.
Trucks, cars, and busses and other transportation vehicles need clean-burning fuels. They have internal combustion engines. The fuel in a liquid state is more portable and easily pumped. Petroleum is used today. It is a fossil fuel. Coal and wood are also, used for energy but produce much more pollution in the atmosphere. They are fossil fuels too, made from dead plants and animals of long ago. Wood and its byproducts can now be converted into biofuels such as wood gas, methanol or ethanol fuel.
The goal for all the production of energy is to turn away from the use of fossil fuels. Biomass from which biofuel is made includes products like wood, sugar cane, manure and waste from agriculture. Biomass is a storehouse of the sun's energy. If it is handled wisely, more will be produced indefinitely. Fossil fuels may at some point run out. Chlorophyll from plants takes carbon dioxide from the air and combines it with water to form carbohydrates. When these carbohydrates are burned, they release the stored energy.
However, recent discoveries have shown that there is a more efficient way to get energy from biomass rather than burning it. It can be turned into liquid fuels or heated to produce gases which will burn. Willow trees and willow grass are grown specifically to be used to produce energy. Some plants can be grown only for producing energy. Energy can be found also in the by-products or waste products from plants used for other purposes. The products used for energy purposes varies from region to region depending on climate and other conditions.
Power crops which produce energy directly can be grown on large farms. Trees and grasses are the most readily available, although corn is starting to be used. Some trees may grow back very quickly after being cut down to the ground. This process is called coppicing. They can be harvested every three to eight years. They can grow as much as forty feet in that space of time. Poplar, willow and black locust, which grow in the cool, wet areas of the northern states, are the best choice for 'short-rotation woody crops' there. Sycamore and sweet gum trees are used in the warm Southeast. Eucalyptus accomplishes the purpose in Florida and California.
Corn and sorghum are grown mainly for food, but in the United States corn provides most of the liquid biofuel. However, because it must be planted, fertilized and harvested every year, it is not the best source for biofuels. Soybeans and sunflowers produce oil which can be used to make biofuel. However, just like corn, much maintenance is required each year to produce a crop of soybeans and sunflowers. Microalgae is another type of crop with oil. This may have the potential for the future of biofuel.
For many years, the way to produce energy from biofuels has been to burn it. However, during this process, energy can be lost or wasted, and some pollution can occur. A new process called 'co-firing' now is being used. Coal is mixed with up to twenty percent of a biomass product in a boiler in a power plant. Operating costs will be lower, less pollution will occur, and energy will be saved. In Iowa, the Department of Energy and a local energy company have begun using switchgrass to substitute for a certain percentage of the coal. The project has worked well. Biomass can also be used to substitute for petroleum in many other products.
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