What is biomass?

Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. In the context of biomass for energy, this usually refers to plant-based substance, but can also include animal and vegetable matter.

The history

Biomass, in its simplest form, has been used to generate energy for thousands of years.

After learning how to control fire, early humans burned plants to keep warm and cook food, but with passing years, gas and electricity became the standard methods.

In 18121, a gas company in London demonstrated the first commercial use of biomass by heating it in an oxygen-free environment to produce liquid oil.

By the year 2000, a total of 10.5% of all energy consumption was biomass.

The science

In terms of chemical composition, biomass is carbon based. It is composed of a mixture of organic molecules containing hydrogen, including atoms of oxygen, nitrogen and small quantities of other atoms such as alkali and heavy metals.

The carbon used in biomass is absorbed by plants in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) by plant life using energy from the sun. If the plants are eaten by animals, they are converted into animal biomass, but if the plant matter is not eaten, it is either broke down by micro-organisms or burned.

If broken down, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere as CO2 or as methane. If burned, it is returned to the atmosphere as CO2.

This has happened for as long as there have been plants on the planet and is part of what is known as the carbon cycle.

The pros of biomass as fuel

  • Renewable energy source
  • Widely available and naturally distributed
  • Helps eliminate waste
  • Cleaner than fossil fuels
  • Can be domestically produced for independent living

The cons of biomass as fuel

  • Some CO2 and methane gases are released during the process
  • On a commercial scale, lots of land is needed to produce it, which could lead to deforestation
  • May compete with food production
  • Requires water to grow

The future of biomass

Renewable energy sources are in great demand and biomass factories are in operation today. However, the area is still in development and green chemists are working on ways to increase scalability whilst limiting environmental damage.


1 Centre for Energy, 2014. Biomass timeline. [Online] Available at: http://www.centreforenergy.com/AboutEnergy/Biomass/History.asp. [Accessed 24th October 2014].

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