Biomass uses are; energy production, soil conservation, energy production, crop production, and carbon sequestration. Biomass benefits include renewable, environment-friendly, economical, and available.
This article discusses the uses (6) and benefits (8) of biomass, as outlined below;
Uses of Biomass
1). Biomass as A Fuel
This is perhaps the most common use of biomass.
In order to use biomass as a fuel, it is often required to undergo a conversion process. This process may be called fermentation or anaerobic digestion, among others.
Ethanol, biodiesel and biogas (methane) are the products of biomass conversion, and are used as fuel in different capacities. These are also referred to as biofuels, and are becoming more relevant to the industrial and transport sectors.
Without conversion, the raw form of biomass such as firewood, is still capable of serving as a fuel. When burnt, it provides heat energy that can be used for various purposes.
Biomass can be used in place of (or in combination with) fossil fuels like coal, in power plants . Here, woody biomass (or other forms of biomass) is subjected to the process of combustion. The heat energy released is used to produce steam which drives a turbine and generates electricity.
2). Biomass as A Nutritional Supplement
Microalgae and other microbial forms of biomass can be processed to produce food additives and nutritional supplements like glutamic acid .
Plant biomass, woody biomass and algae are the main sources of such food additive products like lignin and fatty acids. These products serve a number of purposes in the agricultural and food-manufacturing industries.
3). Biomass as A Fertilizer
Various types of biomass can be used effectively as fertilizer.
A good example of this is agriculture-derived biomass, in the form of livestock waste. Algal biomass has also been proven to be as effective as mineral fertilizer, in supplying nutrients to crops .
Perhaps the most commonly-used biomass fertilizer is biochar. This is the solid remnant from subjecting biomass to intense heat; a process otherwise known as pyrolysis .
Unlike combustion which releases greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, pyrolysis has little to no emissions whatsoever. This means that the production and use of biochar is a carbon sequestration cycle.
The addition of biochar to the soil help to entrap carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the prospect of global warming while enriching the soil. For this reason, it is a highly recommendable biomass fertilizer. An example of the use of biochar can be cited in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil, where the slash-and-char method is used to apply biochar to the soil and boost its fertility .
4). Biomass in the Manufacture of Perfumes and Cosmetics
In the field of personal care, biomass products are increasing in their usefulness as ingredients for the manufacture of cosmetics and perfumes, among others.
Essential oils, which are aromatic derivatives of plant biomass, are used in perfumed and hair conditioning products . Others include acetone used in nail polish removers, which is derived from the fermentation of biomass.
Because of their numerous advantages over synthetic materials, these biomass-based ingredients are now being used widely in the cosmetic industry.
5). Biomass in the Manufacture of Plastics
Bio-based plastics provide good prospects for a more effective form of waste management.
As the name implies, these plastics are produced from renewable, sustainable, organic materials (usually plant biomass), and share significant similarity with traditional plastics, based on physical properties.
Bio-based plastics have the advantage of being biodegradable, which means that their disposal is unlikely to place much strain on the environment.
6). Biomass in the Manufacture of Cleaning Products
So far, detergents and other cleaning agents have been mostly manufactured with the inclusion of petroleum-derived organic ingredients.
These ingredients are mainly solvents and surfactants, both of which can be derived from biomass. Examples of plant biomass that can be used in the manufacture of cleaning products include coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
The use of these materials as ingredients makes the manufacturing of cleaning products to be a more sustainable process than the use of petroleum-based materials.
Benefits/Advantages of (Using) Biomass
1). Biomass is Renewable
This is the most beneficial characteristic of biomass, especially with regards to its use as a fuel.
Because biomass is produced continuously by nature, it can be made available in constant and sufficient supply. Many forms of biomass can be derived as by-products (residue, waste) from human activities like agriculture, forest management, and manufacturing. This makes it much easier to access biomass, compared to other, non-renewable resources.
2). Waste Reduction and Management
Organic matter constitutes a significant proportion of municipal solid waste in landfills, and increases the environmental strain and management challenges associated with waste.
One of the biggest problems caused by organic waste is greenhouse gas emission, whereby massive volumes of carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere as the organic waste decomposes . Soil, air, and water pollution also share links to organic waste.
However, when this organic matter (biomass) is put to use, it significantly reduces the volume of waste in landfills. Waste-to-energy plants are an effective tool for managing organic waste, and help to address several of the associated environmental problems, while converting otherwise useless and harmful materials into useful energy.
3). Biomass Reduces the Dependence on Fossil Fuels
It is no news that fossil fuel exploration, production, refining, and combustion all have potentially harmful impacts on the environment. However, because fossil fuels are currently the most effective solution to the World’s energy needs, they are still heavily relied upon.
Given that biomass can also be used as a fuel, its exploitation, and the development of biomass energy imply that fossil fuels mat no longer be the sole energy option on Earth.
4). Cleaner Environment and Smaller Carbon Footprint
Biomass stores (or sequesters) carbon as it grows. When it is broken down by decomposition, digestion, fermentation or combustion, it releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.
This cycle of carbon storage and release implies that there is no net addition of carbon to the environment. For this reason, biomass is said to be carbon-neutral (this is not likely to be 100% accurate, since biomass which has been lost is not always completely replaced).
When biomass is used to produce energy, the volume of hazardous organic waste in the environment is greatly reduced, while the amount of gaseous emission is also controlled. These implications are positive for the environment.
5). Wide Availability
Because it is renewable, biomass is much more available than many other natural resources.
The sources of biomass are also very diverse, ranging from agricultural crops and livestock waste to forest and industrial residue. These sources provide a nearly-infinite and consistent supply of biomass.
6). Reduces the Threat of Climate Change
Compared to fossil fuels, biomass energy does not contribute significantly to Global Warming. Resultantly, it neither increase the threat of Climate Change.
As earlier stated, biomass energy is fairly carbon-neutral. Aside carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases released when burning biomass are less than the emissions from fossil fuels.
7). Social Benefits
The use of biomass for various beneficial purposes, addresses several potential, social problems.
One of such problems is the issue of pollution. Biodegradable waste is known to be aesthetically unpleasant, while causing soil, air, and water pollution. It also breeds disease vectors like mosquitoes and rodents, which are in turn responsible for various ailments.
When fossil fuels are used to generate energy, pollutants like soot and sulfuric oxide are released into the environment. Contact with (and potential ingestion of) these pollutants may cause health problems like cancer, respiratory problems and asthma .
Biomass energy development can also reduce deforestation, as it raises awareness with regards to the importance of forests and the need to conserve them. It may also increase the practice of effective forest management, and thereby reduce the prospect of hazards like forest fires.
8). Reliability as an Energy Source
Other renewable energy sources like solar and wind are not generally reliable. These sources of energy also vary in supply, according to geographic location, among other factors.
On the other hand, biomass is available in every inhabited part of the world where energy is needed. It can also be produced in large quantity to meet the requirement at any given time or place. This makes it a more reliable energy source than non-renewable materials.
Biomass has found relevance in numerous fields. One of these is the field of energy generation, where various forms of biomass (including firewood, biogas and biodiesel) are used to produce heat energy that can be directly utilized or converted to electricity with a steam-driven turbine.
In manufacturing, biomass finds application as an ingredient in cosmetics, plastics, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, and nutritional supplements.
In agriculture, some types of biomass such livestock waste and biochar (derived from the pyrolysis of biomass) can serve effectively as fertilizer for the soil.
Benefits and advantages of using biomass are mostly environmental. This is because the combustion of biomass to generate energy does not lead significant emissions or pollution. When biomass is put to profitable use, the challenges of organic waste management are also reduced.
Social benefits include the prevention of aesthetic and health problems that could be caused by organic waste, or by excessive reliance on fossil fuels.
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