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Alternative Energy Sources: Biomass and its Current Application

by Navaros Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 11:37:02 AM EST

The first energy source to ever be used by humans was biomass. Man was aware of the wood's usefulness in producing fire, and thus heat, more than 400,000 years ago. Yet over the course of history, oil and its byproducts turned out to surpass in efficiency any other energy source. Oil is even perceived to have caused several economic recessions (1973 OPEC Crisis) as well as given rise to a number of armed conflicts (The Gulf War, partly the War on Terror). Current estimations discussed on EuroTrib show that crude oil fields will be depleted at latest by 2100. The question that we are facing - Is there anything as efficient and non-harmful (it turns out most of the current alternative energy sources are even less environment-friendly than petroleum) as oil that we could use in its place?

We could try to fit biomass back in the picture and look at some expert opinions on how well this ancient energy source could set us off the course of oil dependence. However, a clarification as to what exactly qualifies as biomass should be made. A good general idea of what is being discussed could be obtained through the article in Wikipedia. To put it shortly biomass is any matter, which stores solar energy in the form of chemical energy.

After some online research, it seems to me that the most promising biomass component that is being introduced in a dozen of European countries (as well as the US) is the Miscanthus grass. Miscanthus is a tall perennial grass that can be grown in both cool climates and areas with warmer weather. The plant is native to the region of East Asia and attempts to put it to use as an energy source have been made as early as 1980. However, some crop failures at the time cooled the eagerness of most of the experts and it has not been until recently that new experiments with Miscanthus have been conducted.

The current results are quite promising since it turns out that Miscanthus is very cost-efficient and the farms producing it increase employment by a reasonably high number (the production requires extensive labor). The input/output ratio and the energy balance of the grass are also claimed to be higher than most other biomass plants although I could not find any particular numbers. The Miscanthus can be grown in a wide spectrum of climate conditions and is said to produce a relatively high, regular yields. All of the above features, combined with the lack of health hazards to humans make one wonder why isn't Miscanthus more widely exploited.

One of the biggest drawbacks is that the building of the infrastructure required to exploit Miscanthus more extensively requires large-scale risky investment, since some unexpected problems might arise. The cost of labor and the cost of transportation are two other costs that have to be taken into account. Although, growing and harvesting Miscanthus might be cost-efficient, the cost of converting the plants to fuel added to the cost of building up the necessary infrastructure drives possible investors away. Further setbacks include some ecological risks like changes in the environment, which may drive some native plants out of existence. Currently, researchers are still trying to determine whether Miscanthus conversion to fuel produces any harmful emissions or not.

I couldn't get my hands on any further details covering this specific energy source but I am looking forward to your sharing of your own findings. I also think that's a good time to have a discussion on how we could get rid of our "oil addiction."

Photos courtesy of Dr. I. Lewandowski and Warren Gretz

The merger  Gaz de France - Suez  has been discussed here on ET the last two days.
The consolidation of larger energy-groups in Europe has to do with working out alternatives for oil, because this will demand vast investments.

There is still no consensus what the alternative will be. Economical aswel as political elements will have their part of the game, especially with the nuclear.
But every company is taking positions : for instance : Electrabel , part of Suez became very active to develop the renewable sources : this besides their coal- gas- and nuclear plants.

* Electrabel saves around 750 000
tonnes of CO2 emissions in Belgium by generating electricityfrom renewable energy sources and energy recovery.

  • The company gives customers in Belgium, the netherlands,France, Germany and Poland the option of purchasing electricity generated from 100 % renewable energy sources.

  • In Benelux, three quarters of Electrabel's green electricity comes from biomass, the equivalent of the annual consumption by 100 000 households.

  • In a world first, Electrabel isconverting a coal-fired unit in its Awirs power station (Belgium) to being fully wood-fired.

  • The company's Polaniec power station (Poland) burns wood along with coal and is one of the largest producers of green energy in Europe.

In my opinion , they are occupying the new market of renewables so nobody else can control energy. Even small-scale renewables will be out-market.

Politicians in Europe will clear the barriers : they now that energy-control is powerfull (as in energy = money = political(power)control)....see Iraq.

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)

by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 03:21:21 PM EST
Nice diary entry. I justed posted on a similar topic (Alternative Fuel Sources in the European Union), so I think you will be interested as well - it provides an additional aspect to the problem :)

Be careful! Is it classified?
by darin (dkaloyanov[at]gmail.com) on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 04:44:03 PM EST
I saw your diary and I am more than curious to look through it. Unfortunately, I have quite a busy week so I might have to postpone it a couple of days.
by Navaros (pshipkov@@gmail.com) on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 04:51:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There has to be some sort of a time factor in the definition of biomass. Coal and oil are biomass with a time value of 100 million years or so. Peat is biomass with a time value of a few thousand years. Grass or Ethanol is biomass with a time value of one or two years.

I suspect the definition you're using has a pretty short time value, like less than 10 years perhaps...

by asdf on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 10:10:28 PM EST
You are right that I should have probably mentioned some time value limit. Technically, any energy source that can be found on Earth is biomass as it was formed by solar energy at some point of time.
In the particular case, however, I am referring to an even shorter time value - a year, and in some extreme cases even half a year time period, since that is the time necessary for a Miscanthus crop to grow and be harvested.
by Navaros (pshipkov@@gmail.com) on Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 03:59:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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