Biomass is plant or animal material used for energy production (electricity or heat), or in various industrial processes as raw material for a range of products. It can be purposely grown energy crops (e.g. miscanthus, switchgrass), wood or forest residues, waste from food crops (wheat straw, bagasse), horticulture (yard waste), food processing (corn cobs), animal farming (manure, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus), or human waste from sewage plants.
Burning plant-derived biomass releases CO2, but it has still been classified as a renewable energy source in the EU and UN legal frameworks because photosynthesis cycles the CO2 back into new crops. In some cases, this recycling of CO2 from plants to atmosphere and back into plants can even be CO2 negative, as a relatively large portion of the CO2 is moved to the soil during each cycle.
Cofiring with biomass has increased in coal power plants, because it makes it possible to release less CO2 without the cost associated with building new infrastructure. Co-firing is not without issues however, often an upgrade of the biomass is beneficiary. Upgrading to higher grade fuels can be achieved by different methods, broadly classified as thermal, chemical, or biochemical (see below).
Historically, humans have harnessed biomass-derived energy since the time when people began burning wood fuel. Even in 2019, biomass is the only source of fuel for domestic use in many developing countries. All biomass is biologically-produced matter based in carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The estimated biomass production in the world is approximately 100 billion metric tons of carbon per year, about half in the ocean and half on land.
Wood and residues from wood, for instance spruce, birch, eucalyptus, willow, oil palm, remains the largest biomass energy source today. It is used directly as a fuel or processed into pellet fuel or other forms of fuels. Biomass also includes plant or animal matter that can be converted into fuel, fibers or industrial chemicals. There are numerous types of plants, including corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, hemp, sorghum, sugarcane, and bamboo. The main waste energy feedstocks are wood waste, agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, manufacturing waste, and landfill gas. Sewage sludge is another source of biomass. There is ongoing research involving algae or algae-derived biomass. Other biomass feedstocks are enzymes or bacteria from various sources, grown in cell cultures or hydroponics.
Based on the source of biomass, biofuels are classified broadly into two major categories:
First-generation biofuels are derived from food sources, such as sugarcane and corn starch. Sugars present in this biomass are fermented to produce bioethanol, an alcohol fuel which serve as an additive to gasoline, or in a fuel cell to produce electricity.
Second-generation biofuels utilize non-food-based biomass sources such as perennial energy crops (low input crops), and agricultural/municipal waste. There is huge potential for second generation biofuels but the resources are currently under-utilized.
Thermal conversion processes use heat as the dominant mechanism to upgrade biomass into a better and more practical fuel. The basic alternatives are torrefaction, pyrolysis, and gasification, these are separated principally by the extent to which the chemical reactions involved are allowed to proceed (mainly controlled by the availability of oxygen and conversion temperature).
There are other less common, more experimental or proprietary thermal processes that may offer benefits, such as hydrothermal upgrading. Some have been developed for use on high moisture content biomass, including aqueous slurries, and allow them to be converted into more convenient forms.
A range of chemical processes may be used to convert biomass into other forms, such as to produce a fuel that is more practical to store, transport and use, or to exploit some property of the process itself. Many of these processes are based in large part on similar coal-based processes, such as the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Biomass can be converted into multiple commodity chemicals.
As biomass is a natural material, many highly efficient biochemical processes have developed in nature to break down the molecules of which biomass is composed, and many of these biochemical conversion processes can be harnessed. In most cases, microorganisms are used to perform the conversion process: anaerobic digestion, fermentation, and composting.
Glycoside hydrolases are the enzymes involved in the degradation of the major fraction of biomass, such as polysaccharides present in starch and lignocellulose. Thermostable variants are gaining increasing roles as catalysts in biorefining applications, since recalcitrant biomass often needs thermal treatment for more efficient degradation.
Biomass can be directly converted to electrical energy via electrochemical (electrocatalytic) oxidation of the material. This can be performed directly in a direct carbon fuel cell, direct liquid fuel cells such as direct ethanol fuel cell, a direct methanol fuel cell, a direct formic acid fuel cell, a L-ascorbic Acid Fuel Cell (vitamin C fuel cell), and a microbial fuel cell. The fuel can also be consumed indirectly via a fuel cell system containing a reformer which converts the biomass into a mixture of CO and H2 before it is consumed in the fuel cell.
On combustion, the carbon from biomass is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). After a period of time ranging from a few months to decades, the CO2 produced from combustion is absorbed from the atmosphere by plants or trees. However, the carbon storage capacity of forests may be reduced overall if destructive forestry techniques are employed.
All biomass crops sequester carbon. For example, soil organic carbon has been observed to be greater below switchgrass crops than under cultivated cropland, especially at depths below 30 cm (12 in). For Miscanthus x giganteus, McCalmont et al. found accumulation rates ranging from 0.42 to 3.8 tonnes per hectare per year,  with a mean accumulation rate of 1.84 tonne (0.74 tonnes per acre per year), or 20% of total harvested carbon per year. The grass sequesters carbon in its continually increasing root biomass, together with carbon input from fallen leaves. Typically, perennial crops sequester more carbon than annual crops because the root buildup is allowed to continue undisturbed over many years. Also, perennial crops avoid the yearly tillage procedures (plowing, digging) associated with growing annual crops. Tilling induces soil aeration, which accelerates the soil carbon decomposition rate, by stimulating soil microbe populations. Also, tilling makes it easier for the oxygen (O) atoms in the atmosphere to attach to carbon (C) atoms in the soil, producing CO2.
The simple proposal that biomass is carbon-neutral put forward in the early 1990s has been superseded by the more nuanced proposal that for a particular bioenergy project to be carbon neutral, the total carbon sequestered by a bioenergy crop's root system must compensate for all the emissions from the related, aboveground bioenergy project. This includes any emissions caused by direct or indirect land use change. Many first generation bioenergy projects are not carbon neutral given these demands. Some have even higher total GHG emissions than some fossil based alternatives. Transport fuels might be worse than solid fuels in this regard.
Some are carbon neutral or even negative, though, especially perennial crops. The amount of carbon sequestrated and the amount of GHG (greenhouse gases) emitted will determine if the total GHG life cycle cost of a bio-energy project is positive, neutral or negative. Specifically, a GHG/carbon negative life cycle is possible if the total below-ground carbon accumulation more than compensates for the above-ground total life-cycle GHG emissions. Whitaker et al. estimates that for Miscanthus x giganteus, carbon neutrality and even negativity is within reach. Basically, the yield and related carbon sequestration is so high that it more than compensates for both farm operations emissions, fuel conversion emissions and transport emissions. The graphic on the right displays two CO2 negative Miscanthus x giganteus production pathways, represented in gram CO2-equivalents per megajoule. The yellow diamonds represent mean values.
One should note that successful sequestration is dependent on planting sites, as the best soils for sequestration are those that are currently low in carbon. The varied results displayed in the graph highlights this fact. Milner et al. argues that for the UK, successful sequestration is expected for arable land over most of England and Wales, with unsuccessful sequestration expected in parts of Scotland, due to already carbon rich soils (existing woodland). Also, for Scotland, the relatively lower yields in this colder climate makes CO2 negativity harder to achieve. Soils already rich in carbon includes peatland and mature forest. Grassland can also be carbon rich, however Milner et al. further argues that the most successful carbon sequestration in the UK takes place below improved grasslands. The bottom graphic displays the estimated yield necessary to achieve CO2 negativity for different levels of existing soil carbon saturation.
Forest-based biomass projects has received criticism for ineffective GHG mitigation from a number of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmental groups also argue that it might take decades for the carbon released by burning biomass to be recaptured by new trees. Biomass burning produces air pollution in the form of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates and other pollutants. In 2009 a Swedish study of the giant brown haze that periodically covers large areas in South Asia determined that two thirds of it had been principally produced by residential cooking and agricultural burning, and one third by fossil-fuel burning. The use of wood biomass as an industrial fuel has been shown to produce fewer particulates and other pollutants than the burning seen in wildfires or open field fires.
...it seems likely that arable land converted to Miscanthus will sequester soil carbon; of the 14 comparisons, 11 showed overall increases in SOC over their total sample depths with suggested accumulation rates ranging from 0.42 to 3.8 Mg C ha-1 yr-1. Only three arable comparisons showed lower SOC stocks under Miscanthus, and these suggested insignificant losses between 0.1 and 0.26 Mg ha-1 yr-1.
The correlation between plantation age and SOC can be seen in Fig. 6, [...] the trendline suggests a net accumulation rate of 1.84 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 with similar levels to grassland at equilibrium.
Any soil disturbance, such as ploughing and cultivation, is likely to result in short-term respiration losses of soil organic carbon, decomposed by stimulated soil microbe populations (Cheng, 2009; Kuzyakov, 2010). Annual disturbance under arable cropping repeats this year after year resulting in reduced SOC levels. Perennial agricultural systems, such as grassland, have time to replace their infrequent disturbance losses which can result in higher steady-state soil carbon contents (Gelfand et al., 2011; Zenone et al., 2013).
The environmental costs and benefits of bioenergy have been the subject of significant debate, particularly for first-generation biofuels produced from food (e.g. grain and oil seed). Studies have reported life-cycle GHG savings ranging from an 86% reduction to a 93% increase in GHG emissions compared with fossil fuels (Searchinger et al., 2008; Davis et al., 2009; Liska et al., 2009; Whitaker et al., 2010). In addition, concerns have been raised that N2O emissions from biofuel feedstock cultivation could have been underestimated (Crutzen et al., 2008; Smith & Searchinger, 2012) and that expansion of feedstock cultivation on agricultural land might displace food production onto land with high carbon stocks or high conservation value (i.e. iLUC) creating a carbon debt which could take decades to repay (Fargione et al., 2008). Other studies have shown that direct nitrogen-related emissions from annual crop feedstocks can be mitigated through optimized management practices (Davis et al., 2013) or that payback times are less significant than proposed (Mello et al., 2014). However, there are still significant concerns over the impacts of iLUC, despite policy developments aimed at reducing the risk of iLUC occurring (Ahlgren & Di Lucia, 2014; Del Grosso et al., 2014).
The impact of growing bioenergy and biofuel feedstock crops has been of particular concern, with some suggesting the greenhouse gas (GHG) balance of food crops used for ethanol and biodiesel may be no better or worse than fossil fuels (Fargione et al., 2008; Searchinger et al., 2008). This is controversial, as the allocation of GHG emissions to the management and the use of coproducts can have a large effect on the total carbon footprint of resulting bioenergy products (Whitaker et al., 2010; Davis et al., 2013). The potential consequences of land use change (LUC) to bioenergy on GHG balance through food crop displacement or 'indirect' land use change (iLUC) are also an important consideration (Searchinger et al., 2008).
While the initial premise regarding bioenergy was that carbon recently captured from the atmosphere into plants would deliver an immediate reduction in GHG emission from fossil fuel use, the reality proved less straightforward. Studies suggested that GHG emission from energy crop production and land-use change might outweigh any CO2 mitigation (Searchinger et al., 2008; Lange, 2011). Nitrous oxide (N2O) production, with its powerful global warming potential (GWP), could be a significant factor in offsetting CO2 gains (Crutzen et al., 2008) as well as possible acidification and eutrophication of the surrounding environment (Kim & Dale, 2005). However, not all biomass feedstocks are equal, and most studies critical of bioenergy production are concerned with biofuels produced from annual food crops at high fertilizer cost, sometimes using land cleared from natural ecosystems or in direct competition with food production (Naik et al., 2010). Dedicated perennial energy crops, produced on existing, lower grade, agricultural land, offer a sustainable alternative with significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration when produced with appropriate management (Crutzen et al., 2008; Hastings et al., 2008, 2012; Cherubini et al., 2009; Don- dini et al., 2009a; Don et al., 2012; Zatta et al., 2014; Rich- ter et al., 2015).
Significant reductions in GHG emissions have been demonstrated in many LCA studies across a range of bioenergy technologies and scales (Thornley et al., 2009, 2015). The most significant reductions have been noted for heat and power cases. However, some other studies (particularly on transport fuels) have indicated the opposite, that is that bioenergy systems can increase GHG emissions (Smith & Searchinger, 2012) or fail to achieve increasingly stringent GHG savings thresholds. A number of factors drive this variability in calculated savings, but we know that where significant reductions are not achieved or wide variability is reported there is often associated data uncertainty or variations in the LCA methodology applied (Rowe et al., 2011). For example, data uncertainty in soil carbon stock change following LUC has been shown to significantly influence the GHG intensity of biofuel production pathways (Fig. 3), whilst the shorter term radiative forcing impact of black carbon particles from the combustion of biomass and biofuels also represents significant data uncertainty (Bond et al., 2013).