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What is biomass energy?

Biomass, as a renewable energy source, is biological material from living, or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly, or converted into other energy products such as biofuel.In the first sense, biomass is plant matter used to generate electricity with steam turbines & gasifiers or produce heat, usually by direct combustion. In the second sense, biomass includes plant or animal matter that can be converted into fibers or other industrial chemicals, including biofuels.

Type of Biomass

Wood and Agricultural Products

Most biomass used today is home grown energy. Wood—logs, chips, bark, and sawdust—accounts for about 46 percent of biomass energy. But any organic matter can produce biomass energy. Other biomass sources include agricultural waste roducts like fruit pits and corncobs.

Solid Waste

Burning trash turns waste into a usable form of energy. One ton (2,000 pounds) of garbage contains about as much heat energy as 500 pounds of coal. Garbage is not all biomass; perhaps half of its energy content comes from plastics, which are made from petroleum and natural gas.

Landfill Gas and Biogas

Bacteria and fungi are not picky eaters. They eat dead plants and animals, causing them to rot or decay. A fungus on a rotting log is converting cellulose to sugars to feed itself. Although this process is slowed in a landfill, a substance called methane gas is still produced as the waste decays.

Using Biomass Energy

Usually we burn wood and use its energy for heating. Burning, however, is not the only way to convert biomass energy into a usable energy source. There are four ways:


There are several types of processes that can produce an alcohol (ethanol) from various plants, especially corn. The two most commonly used processes involve using yeast to ferment the starch in the plant to produce ethanol. One of the newest processes involves using enzymes to break down the cellulose in the plant fibers, allowing more ethanol to be made from each plant, because all of the plant tissue is utilized, not just the starch.


We can burn biomass in waste-to-energy plants to produce steam for making electricity, or we can burn it to provide heat for industries and homes.

Bacterial Decay

Bacteria feed on dead plants and animals, producing methane. Methane is produced whenever organic material decays. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, the gas sold by natural gas utilities. Many landfills are recovering and using the methane gas produced by the garbage.


Biomass can be converted into gas or liquid fuels by using chemicals or heat. In India, cow manure is converted to methane gas to produce electricity. Methane gas can also be converted to methanol, a liquid form of methane.