Biomass

"Biomass" means any plant-derived organic matter available on a renewable basis, including dedicated energy crops and trees, agricultural food and feed crops, agricultural crop wastes and residues, wood wastes and residues, aquatic plants, animal wastes, municipal wastes, and other waste materials.

Bioenergy technologies use renewable biomass resources to produce an array of energy related products including electricity, liquid, solid, and gas fuels, heat, chemicals, and other materials. Bioenergy ranks second in renewable primary energy production and accounts for three percent of the primary energy production in the United States.

Biomass is an attractive petroleum alternative because it’s renewable, available anywhere in the world, and can be developed using environmentally friendly technologies and processes.

Wood biomass includes wood chips from forestry operations; arborist trimmings; residues from lumber, pulp/paper, and furniture mills; recycled pallets; and fuel wood for space heating. Maryland is rich in raw biomass material from farming, fishing, aquaculture, and forestry.

With 10 gigawatts of installed capacity, biopower technologies are proven options in the United States today. Biomass production is a significant industry in the state, producing nearly 3 million tons of biomass annually. Maryland’s strong agricultural industry combined with federal research facilities and significant biotech industry presence position the state to be a national leader in biomass innovation.

Major facilities such as the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, along with state university research and large agri-business, provide the knowledge, research and development (R&D), and workforce required to produce promising new biomass technologies.

Waste-to-Energy

WTE involves recovering energy from waste by converting refuse materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion (incineration), gasification, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas (LFG) recovery. Maryland is currently home to several large-scale municipal solid waste (MSW) to energy plants, and project developers are now demonstrating WTE technologies as a part of mitigation strategies to deal with excess poultry waste from agriculture production operations. (wood fired boiler photo)

HOW IT WORKS

Biomass is essentially an indirect form of solar energy. The carbohydrates and complex compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that result from photosynthesis turn back into carbon dioxide and water when they are burned. As long as the biomass used remains equal to the biomass grown, it is a sustainable and carbon neutral energy source.

Biomass energy technologies are growing cleaner and more easily managed. Solid wastes are being converted to liquid and to gas fuels instead of being burned, and new “energy crops,” such as switchgrass and willow trees, are being grown for energy generation in order to move away from using food crops for energy generation, which drives food prices up and harms poorer regions disproportionately by directing resources to energy production rather than food production.

Biomass Energy Sources include:

  • Biomass Residues: Basically, leftovers. Industries like forestry and agriculture produce plant and animal wastes in large quantities. Some material must be left behind to replenish soil with necessary nutrients, but leaving too much can be wasteful and forfeits their values as energy.
  • Energy crops: Trees and grasses - especially native species - are optimal, but corn has been favored and is most well-known.  Some tree hybrids regrow rapidly after being cut back, and can continue to do so for as many as 30 years before the need to be replanted.
  • Trees and Forests: The harvesting of trees occurs every day in Maryland and the by-products of these harvests are excellent fuels. Arborists trim and remove trees every day and pay high costs to dispose of the wood. Timber harvesting in Maryland is very carefully regulated, but due to lack of markets the upper portions of most trees are left in the woods.
  • Grasses: Perennial grasses that prevent erosion and do well in low nutrient soil, such as switchgrass.
  • Food crops: Corn, sorghum, soybeans, and sunflowers are common sources for fuel, but these require annual replanting, maintenance, fertilizers, and energy and are not an optimally sustainable source of energy.
  • Algae: These tiny aquatic plants have the potential to grow extremely fast in the hot, shallow, saline water found in some lakes in the desert Southwest. Forms of algae thrive on carbon dioxide, and emissions from power plants have been used to feed the plants, which are then used in biofuels.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) keeps statistics on biomass energy sources. See NREL maps for multiple biomass energy sources in your county, state or region.

Human Wastes: Our own human waste - garbage and sewage - is also a source for biomass energy. We generate biomass wastes in many forms:

  • Organic and biodegradable garbage (paper, food, leather, yard waste, woody waste from packaging and cardboard)
  • Landfill gases given off by decomposition
  • Sewage, in the form of methane greenhouse gas that is captured and burned for heat and power by sewage treatment plants

Biopower

Generally speaking, biopower refers to using biomass to generate electricity. In some biomass industries, the spent steam from the power plant is also used for manufacturing processes or to heat buildings. Such combined heat and power systems greatly increase overall energy efficiency.

Co-Firing

Co-firing refers to mixing biomass with fossil fuels in conventional power plants. Coal-fired power plants can use co-firing systems to significantly reduce emissions, especially sulfur dioxide emissions.

Gasification

Gasification uses high temperatures and a lack of oxygen to convert biomass into synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas, or "syngas," can then be chemically converted into other fuels or products, burned in a conventional boiler, or used instead of natural gas in a gas turbine.

Bioproducts

Fossil fuels are used by the petro-chemical industry to make a number of everyday and household products. But many of these products can be made from biomass. It’s simply a matter of converting the right source of biomass into the right chemicals for making plastics and other products that typically are made from petroleum.

Bioproducts that can be made from sugar-based biomass sources include antifreeze, plastics, glues, artificial sweeteners, and gel for toothpaste. Bioproducts that can be made from a syngas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen include plastics and acids—also used to make photographic films, textiles, and synthetic fabrics. Wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation can also be made from renewable biomass sources.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. It can be used as an additive to reduce vehicle emissions or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel  for diesel engines.

 

BIOMASS IN MARYLAND

Biomass is catching on throughout the U.S. It's already producing 1.2% of all our electricity and about 2% of the liquid fuel used in cars and trucks. But with the volume of waste we produce, we could power much, much more.

Biomass production is a significant industry in Maryland, producing nearly 3 million tons of biomass annually.

Maryland’s strong agricultural industry combined with federal research facilities and strong biotech sector position it to be a national leader in biomass innovation.

  • Major facilities like the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute along with state university research and large agri-business provides the knowledge, R&D, and workforce required to spin out promising new technologies.

Maryland is rich in raw biomass material from farming, fishing, aquaculture, and forestry.

  • Biomass energy would be a sustainable, renewable, and plentiful source of homegrown energy.

Environmental concerns over the health of Maryland’s air quality and the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed can be addressed in part with biomass adoption.

Increasing biomass energy can produce dramatic environmental benefits:

  • Modern combustion technologies using biomass can reduce air pollution;
  • Locally sourced, reducing carbon emissions from transportation;
  • Balancing growth rates with harvesting achieves carbon neutrality;
  • Decreases water pollution, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides – and energy crops planted in environmental buffers on shorelines decrease agricultural runoff.
  • Improved soil quality with plants that don’t deplete nutrients from the soil;
  • Reduced landfill waste;
  • Reducing global warming

 

Related Links

Chesapeake Bay Commission 2010 Biofuels Report (downloadable document)

See how a wood CPH plant operates in this 5 min. video. (Host site is Middlebury College, VT, which is a notoriously "green campus".Their energy needs were large enough to warrant a CHP plant, so you'll see some equipment here that wouldn't be used at other facilities only requiring heat.)

Biomass FAQ’s

What Are the Challenges with Biomass Systems?
Why Biomass in Maryland?
Who is Working on Biomass in Maryland?

Challenges with Biomass
  • Energy crops are still land-intensive and require crop space to grow and harvest. However, set-aside lands such as environmental buffers could be put into use to grow energy crops.
  • Making a truly sustainable biomass industry means powering planting and harvesting through biomass energy. Currently, fossil fuel power is used.
  • Biomass is less energy dense than fossil fuel, meaning a much larger volume of raw material is required to create a unit of energy. This makes shipping and large-scale bioenergy production cost-inefficient, but it makes community-scale power generation viable, enabling rural or agricultural communities to be more energy self-sufficient.
Why Biomass in Maryland?
  • Biomass production is a significant industry in Maryland, producing nearly 3 million tons of biomass annually and co-producing 462 gigawatt hours of electricity.
  • Maryland’s strong agricultural industry combined with federal research facilities and strong biotech sector position it to be a national leader in biomass innovation.
  • Maryland is rich in raw biomass material from farming, fishing, aquaculture, and forestry.
  • Biomass energy would be a sustainable, renewable, and plentiful source of homegrown energy.
  • Any community, anywhere, produces raw biomass materials and can harness this energy source;
  • Based on available materials and needs, any locality could design a self-sufficient and sustainable energy system from its own source material;
  • Biomass is cost-effective, carbon-neutral, and yields a number of incidental but significant environmental improvements as it is implemented.
  • Environmental concerns over the health of Maryland’s air quality and the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed can be addressed in part with biomass adoption.
Increasing biomass energy can produce dramatic environmental benefits:
  • It reduces air pollution through carbon neutrality;
  • Decreases water pollution, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides – and energy crops planted in environmental buffers on shorelines decrease agricultural runoff;
  • Improved soil quality with plants that don’t draw nutrients from the soil;
  • Reduced landfill waste;
  • Reducing global warming.
  • See also the Chesapeake Bay Commission 2010 Biofuels Report (downloadable document).
Who is Working on Biomass in Maryland?

Major facilities like the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute along with state university research and large agri-business provide the knowledge, R&D, and workforce required to spin out promising new biomass technologies.

See the MCEC Innovation in Maryland page for descriptions of organizations, projects, and institutions advancing research and development in all types of renewable energy resources.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) lists renewable energy and efficiency news and websites specific to Maryland.