Biomass Energy: Role in Agriculture

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Humans have used biomass energy since ancient times. Early cavemen probably started it when they first made wood fires for cooking or keeping warm. Today, biomass energy is a non-renewable energy source. You can use it as fuel for electric generators and other machinery items. Biomass consists of material that comes from plants and animals. 

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Biomass covers plant products and by-products. It includes products from forest residuals to sugarcane crop waste. Upgrading from biomass to bio-coal offers many benefits.

Here we discuss biomass energy and how it is an emerging opportunity for renewable energy.

What is Biomass and Biomass Energy? 

Biomass energy is energy generated by living or dead organisms. The most common biomass materials are plants such as soy and corn. You can burn the biomass materials to generate heat directly. You can convert biomass materials into electricity indirectly. 

Biomass in agriculture is the residues of crops, residues that remain in the field after harvest. They comprise different parts of the plants like stems, branches, leaves, husks, and seeds. Biomass is a very useful source of energy with great potential. These residues can be helpful to produce energy and can be categorized:

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1 Crop residues – residues left after the harvest.

2 Animal farming residues – it consists of animal waste.

3 Residues from perennial crops – small branches and other residues after regular maintenance of the perennial crops, like olive groves, orchards, and vineyards.

The plants absorb the sun’s energy through photosynthesis and convert carbon dioxide and water into nutrients like carbohydrates. You can use direct and indirect means to convert into usable energy. You can burn biomass to create heat or convert it into electricity by direct means or process it into biofuel by indirect means. Plants, wood, and waste are the most common biomass materials used for energy. They are also known as biomass feedstocks. 

About one-third of the crop remains can be used to produce thermal and electrical energy. The remaining two-thirds can be used in livestock farms as bedding for livestock or left on the land as a fertilizer. The analysis and statistics of crop waste show large untapped potential for energy generation. The reason being most farms are small and do not have sufficient available biomass quantities to invest in a biomass plant worthwhile.

BioCoal and Biomass Energy

Bio coal, or synthetic coal, is produced by thermally upgrading biomass. It has gained a lot of traction globally in the past few years.  To reduce dependence on coal and mitigate greenhouse gases, more and more countries are looking for more renewable energy sources.  Biomass itself is a fuel source. Upgradation of biomass to bio-coal offers many benefits. The conversion of biomass to bio-coal creates a product with similar characteristics to traditional fossil-based coal. Consequently, one gets a  viable option for coal consumers to reduce their emissions.

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Bio coal is produced by processing dry biomass in an inert environment with no oxygen at high temperatures. The process is known as pyrolysis. The conversion of biomass to bio-coal varies depending on the properties of the source material. However, biomass is processed at temperatures ranging between 500 to 800ºF for a specific time to produce the bio-coal. Low BTU hydrocarbons are driven off, combusted, and used for the heat required in the drying phase of biomass processing in the rotary kiln. You can densify bio-coal to improve its energy capacity and handling features.

Biomass Energy and the Environment

The process of carbon exchange between all layers of the earth is known as the carbon cycle. These layers are the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere. Biomass forms an integral part of earth’s carbon cycle.

Carbon helps in regulating the amount of sunlight that enters the earth’s atmosphere. The exchange of carbon takes place through photosynthesis, decomposition, respiration, and human activity.

The carbon cycle takes many forms. Carbon is absorbed by the soil when an organism decomposes. The recycling of carbon takes place when a plant releases carbon-based nutrients through photosynthesis into the biosphere. The decomposition of an organism may lead to the formation of peat, coal, or petroleum subjected to the right conditions. Subsequently, these are extracted through human or natural activity.

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For a million years, carbon has been stored in fossil fuels. The release of carbon into the atmosphere occurs when these fossil fuels are extracted and burnt for energy. Carbon is not reabsorbed by fossil fuels. Carbon present in biomass can continue to be exchanged in the carbon cycle.

The farming of biomass materials such as plants and forests is necessary. It effectively allows the earth to continue the carbon cycle process. It takes decades for plants and trees such as switchgrass to re-absorb and store carbon. Uprooting or disturbing the soil is a highly disruptive process. A varied yet a steadied supply of trees, crops, and other plants is vital for maintaining a healthy environment.

Advantages of Biomass Energy

Biomass is a clean source of energy. Its initial source of energy is sunlight. The biomass, derived from plants or algae, can regrow in a short period of time. This is because crops, trees, and solid waste are available constantly and are well managed.

The carbon emissions can be offset if trees and crops are grown in a proper manner. The offset happens when they absorb carbon dioxide through respiration. Some bioenergy processes allow the amount of carbon that is reabsorbed to exceed the release of carbon emissions during fuel processing or usage.

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Many biomass feedstocks, such as switchgrass, can be harvested on small pastures or lands. This is possible as they are not competing with food crops. Biomass energy is stored within the organism and harvested. This is very unlike other renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, when needed. 

Disadvantages of Biomass Energy

  1. Biomass feedstocks can become non-renewable if you do not refill them quickly. For example, it takes hundreds of years for a forest to re-establish itself. In comparison, this is still much less than fossil fuels such as peat. Fossil fuel like three feet of peat can take around 900 years to replenish itself.
  2. You require arable land for the development of most biomass. Hence, land used for biofuel crops such as corn and soy is unavailable to provide natural habitats or to grow food.
  3. Forest land areas that have matured for decades are able to store more carbon than newly planted areas. Forested areas, if cut, must be replanted and given time to grow in a balanced manner. Otherwise, the advantages of using wood for fuel are not offset by the regrowth of trees. 
  4. Biomass has a lower energy density as compared to fossil fuels. It is not economically viable to transport biomass more than 100 miles from the place of processing. However, the conversion of biomass into pellets, as opposed to wood chips, can increase the fuel’s energy density. This will make it more advantageous to ship.
  5. Burning biomass leads to the release of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and other pollutants and particulates. These pollutants, if not captured and recycled, will lead to problems. Otherwise, the burning biomass will create smog. It can even exceed the number of pollutants released by fossil fuels.
  6. Wood is one of the most used sources of biomass energy. The desired amount of power production requires the burning of vast amounts of wood and other waste products. While currently there is enough wood waste already, there is a risk of deforestation in the future.
  7. The space requirements for Biomass plants are quite large.

Role of Biomass Energy in Agriculture

Biofuels and biomass come in liquid, gaseous, and solid forms. They are used for heating, cooking, processing, cooling, electricity production, and as transport fuels. Most common in the agriculture and energy interlace is the generation of electricity from agricultural residues, such as from crops (like straw and husk), from husbandry (like manures and slurries), and from other organic material from excess production or insufficient market (like grass silage). 

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On the consumption side, bioenergy has extensive use for various agricultural processing activities, such as the cooling of agricultural products. Cogeneration is an important aspect to discuss when we think of the role of biomass energy in agriculture. Cogeneration is for the on-site generation of heat (cooling) and electricity and thereby optimizing generation efficiency.

Takeaway

The shift to biomass energy has played a vital role in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. There is a simple logic behind biomass energy. Plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air. They use photosynthesis to isolate the carbon and then build tree bark, trunks, and leaves. When the plant dies and rots down, and much of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. 

When you use biomass as an energy source, you intercept this carbon cycle, using that stored energy productively. Additionally, burning fossil fuels releases carbon from geological reservoirs. The carbon would have remained locked up for many millions of years if it was left untouched. Thus, switching from fossil fuels to biomass energy is an obvious way for nations to meet their obligations under the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

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