In the media, the term “biomass energy” is bandied around quite frequently. Yet often, the audience, and even those using the phrase, may not fully understand what biomass fuel is, how it works, or its storied history.
Some of the main points we’ll cover:
- What biomass is
- The history of biomass
- Types of biomass
- The future of biomass
Here, we’ll survey everything you need to know about when and how biomass energy was discovered, plus how it can help us in the future.
First, What Is Biomass?
“Biomass” refers to any part of an organism that is living or has recently died. This working definition can include plants or animals but can be expanded to include virtually any living being.
Usually, in everyday language, “biomass” used to produce energy refers to crops or other materials that can potentially replace fossil fuels.
Like other alternative forms of energy, biomass fuels have gained significant popularity recently due to the rising threat that oil and coal pose to the long-term health of the planet.
For those purposes, biomass fuel has proved fit to power cars, heat homes, and other functions traditionally performed by fossil fuel-based machinery.
Contrary to popular belief, biomass energy has a long and storied history of use – as long as human history itself. Let’s get into that now.
Fire: The Original Biomass – When it was doscoverd
As long as modern man has lived on planet Earth, he has utilized fire to heat his homes, to cook his food, and for lighting in the darkness.
The earliest humans all recognized the critical importance of fire to survival, and many worshipped it as a deity of sorts.
Fire was the original biomass. Even today, burning plant material, usually wood from trees, to produce fire is still a common practice.
For millennia, fire maintained its position as the most predominant, premier form of biomass.
- This fact remained unchanged until around the 12th century when humans discovered that plant materials could be fermented into alcohol – giving birth to wine, beer, and the “spirits” that have been the lubricants of human social life ever since.
At one point, pioneers in Europe distilled these spirits to produce pure distilled alcohol or ethanol.
They quickly discovered it’s suitably for lighting and cooking, in turn adopting it as a preferred means to perform these everyday tasks.
Given its wide availability and relatively simple method of production, ethanol took off as a wildly successful biofuel. It could very easily be synthesized from grain products, which the agricultural revolution had created an abundance of.
Out of ethanol was born turpentine, which descendants of the original ethanol pioneers used to produce turpentine.
This new biofuel was the power source for the very first human engine invented in the early 1800s.
Pine sap, which is distilled to produce turpentine, was actually the object of war that drove nations to fight one another long before oil became the hot commodity that it is today.
It might be hard to imagine, but many regional conflicts between great powers were instigated by competition over this precious biofuel resource.
Until fossil fuels eventually took their place, ethanol remained the most popular fuel source that powered the industrial revolution.
Vegetable and Fish Oil Biomass
Next to ethanol, vegetable and fish oils enjoyed great interest among ancient peoples. These biofuels proved themselves viable for lighting and heating, just like ethanol.
Dating as far back as Ancient Egypt, records indicate that vegetable and animal oils were used in several contexts.
In some cases, a combination of grain alcohol, vegetables, and animal oils powered early human machines and devices.
Oil and Gas Crashes the Biomass Party
Around the middle of the 19th century, scientists discovered how to extract and utilize fossil fuels stored within the surface of the planet to power all the needs of the burgeoning industrial revolution – the great renaissance of trains, planes, and automobiles.
On August 27, 1859, America led the way by creating the first-ever drilled oil well located at Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Once the proof of concept had solidified, oil drilling exploded in the US, Mexico, Venezuela, and on the other side of the world as well in Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
The world quickly became hooked on this cheap, widely available, efficient energy source and it took a leading role as the top energy source for the modern era.
Several wars, many of them occurring in the Middle East, have erupted since then primarily due to competition and protectiveness over oil resources between states.
While this process occurred, biomass fuels made of vegetables and grain took a backseat in the popular imagination. The great American automobiles and trains and planes all ran on fossil fuels.
The primary perceived benefits of fossil fuels over biomass fuels made of plant materials at the time were the ease and convenience of use factors as well as the scalability of oil extraction that simply beat out biomass fuels in the marketplace.
Biomass Energy Resurges
For all the beneficial impacts on powering the industrial revolution that fossil fuels had, they are also nonrenewable and, more importantly, we now know, extremely harmful to the planet due to the carbon that they pump into the atmosphere.]
Because of these downsides, in the last 30 years or so, interest in finding alternatives and getting off of our reliance on fossil fuels has steadily intensified.
Biomass as an alternative energy
In 2021, interest in alternative fuel sources is greater than it has ever been. Many people, upon hearing the phrase “alternative energy,” might immediately jump to solar power or wind power in their imagination.
IN reality, though, biomass fuels are the top sources of alternative energy.
While we still utilize the age-old technique of burning wood for fire, researchers have recently broken through with impressive new innovations that change the way we will think about biomass energy moving forward.
In two hot examples, crops grown for strictly energetic purposes are produced at scale and then made into biogas and biofuel.
This process is much more efficient than in previous eras, making it a more attractive economic proposition than it might have been just a decade ago to investors.
Second, many landfills now have the capacity, through anaerobic digestion, to convert biomass that might otherwise have just rotted into the ground into biogas instead, which has numerous practical applications.
Biomass Energy Moving Forward – The Future
Given the environmental challenges we face related to our energy consumption referenced earlier, governments and NGOs are pouring unprecedented amounts of energy and cash into innovating new energy sources and improving upon already-existing ones – including the ancient biomass energy sector.
As agricultural efficiency continues to improve, it’s easy to imagine how crops-for-energy production will only skyrocket in the coming years.
Accordingly, biomass energy will, for the foreseeable future, maintain its position alongside solar, hydropower, and wind power as one of the premier alternative energy sources as we work through the Green Revolution.
Every month, if not more frequently, new processing plants for biomass fuels, biorefineries, and businesses built on biomass energy crop up. The trend looks like it will continue to gain momentum.
Looking back, biomass energy has come a long, long way from its humble origins producing fire for hunters and gatherers.