Biomass for Kids

We all know that our environment is in a lot of danger from pollution. We are using up our natural resources way too fast and are making so much pollution that it is killing our planet and making it unsafe for us to live on. What if we could find a way to use the trash from our daily activities and turn it into energy? That would be a great solution to many of our planet’s problems, wouldn’t it? Scientists all over the world are working on ways to use different kinds of trash to make fuel. This is called biomass energy and it promises to be a good alternative to our need for fossil fuels like coal and oil.

How Does Biomass Energy Work?

Diagram of a domestic biogas plant. Image by Unknown.

Diagram of a domestic biogas plant. Image by Unknown.

All living material, or anything made from once-living material, has energy from the sun stored inside it. It is like living material is a battery for storing solar energy. This is even true of people. This energy can be used up from the ‘batteries’ by either burning it or by using it to make liquid fuels, called biofuels. When we burn biomass for energy, the heat from it is used to heat water into steam. This steam then turns turbines to generate electricity.

Biomass is made from anything we would normally waste. It can be made from waste wood that is leftover from building things, leftover alcohol fuels, rotting crops and other plant materials, and the gases caused by garbage in landfills. Scientists are experiment with using all kinds of throwaway materials as a source of biomass energy. In England, near the Cadbury chocolate factory, scientists have invented a device that can turn the chocolate waste into fuel. In Canada, a machine is being tested that can turn used baby diapers into fuel and that creates another product that can be used to make new plastics.

Farms around the planet are doing experiments to turn farm animal waste (yes, we mean poop) into a good, cheap energy source. Farmers are also using crop waste like cornstalks, corncobs, dead soybean plants and other crops, ruined animal food and seeds, and other materials to make fuel and other kinds of energy. Some farms even use their waste materials to make their own biofuel to use in the farm tractors and equipment.

Garbage in landfills is one of the worst problems we have with pollution. When the garbage rots, it releases a gas called methane, which is very bad when it goes into the atmosphere. Many landfills are using pipes to catch this methane and burn it to create electricity. That is a great way to solve two problems at once! There are many places in the United States where people are already using electricity that comes from landfill methane.

Biomass is being used everyday to make electricity. In fact, it is the second most used form of renewable energy in the United States. The electricity produced by biomass plants in the United States is used to power over two million homes in this country. That is a lot of power to be made from stuff we would throw away! One of these biomass energy plants in Cedar Rapids, Iowa uses 150 tons of waste everyday to make enough electricity for 4,000 homes. The biomass they use includes sawdust and leftover wood from sawmills, leftover paper from paper mills, fast-growing crops and trees, cornstalks and corncobs from farms, and paper and cardboard that can’t be recycled. And all of that biomass would have ended up in a landfill if it wasn’t used for power.

Benefits of Biomass Energy

Biomass is carbon neutral. That means that making it takes as much pollution out of the air as using it puts in. This keeps things equal and won’t hurt the environment at all. It is also good for the planet because it only uses renewable resources instead of using up all of the nonrenewable resources.

Biomass energy is cheap, too. It uses things we already have or things that can be grown cheaply. It can also be used in power plants just like they are without having to spend money to change anything. This makes the electricity created from biomass much cheaper for people to use than regular electricity.

Drawbacks of Biomass Energy

Using biomass does create some greenhouse gases and other pollution. Although it isn’t much, many people think we need to stop using any kind of energy that makes pollution. There is also some worry that we may not have enough waste available to make enough biomass energy for everyone so there could be a danger of an energy shortage. It takes large amounts of waste to create electricity from biomass. Until we find ways to get more energy from our waste, a good solution might be to mix biomass energy with coal in electricity producing plants.

Does this mean we should not use biomass energy? No, it doesn’t. It only means that we need to keep working on ways to make biomass even safer for the environment. We also need to find newer, better ways to get the most energy possible from all of our waste. Biomass can be a really good source of energy that we can use along with other kinds of alternative energy, such as solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity, and others.

We are a long way from being able to use only biomass or any other kind of alternative energy on its own as our only energy source. Because it is so important for us to find better ways of doing things and to stop polluting our environment, scientists around the world will keep working on ways to make clean energy sources better and more available for everyone to use. Until the day that we find a perfect way to make enough energy for our needs without causing pollution or any other problems, it is very important that we try our best to save energy and resources in every way we can.



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