In ecological studies, biomass is the mass of living organisms present in a particular area or ecosystem. The measurement of the amount of biomass present is handled differently based on the reason for the measure and exactly what the measurement is supposed to mean. However, this definition does cover the more conventional uses of the term. We will, therefore, attempt to answer the question, "What is Biomass?" as it relates to energy production.
In the world of energy production, the term biomass refers to renewable sources of energy that come from living organisms as well those that have recently died. This eliminates the fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum because, while produced from ancient biomass, these fuels are bound in the earth's crust and are not part of the carbon cycle. Burning biomass does not release carbon into the atmosphere that adds to the amount of carbon already present in the normal carbon cycle. However, combustion of biomass to produce energy does put the carbon into the atmosphere faster than natural processes can accommodate and reabsorb.
Different substances meet the definition of biomass. These include wood, both directly harvested and waste products from other processes, grasses, grains, oils produced from trees or vegetables, household garbage, and more. Industries are typically more selective when they define biomass to mean only that which is useful to their particular type of business.
One example would be ethanol used to produce fuel. This particular alcohol comes almost exclusively from corn, though experiments have shown that it can be harvested from other plants and grains. Vegetable based oils that are used in the production of the fuel, biodiesel, are also biomass products. Wood used to produce heat meats the definition.
Another type of biomass that is being researched as possible sources of energy is known as landfill gas or biogas. The primary ingredient here is methane gas, which forms naturally when plant and animal matter rot. It is also the main ingredient found in natural gas. Any plant or animal waste that produces a foul smell as it rots is producing methane.
The primary advantages of biomass lie in the fact that it is a renewable source of energy. Unlike fossil fuels, which exist in finite amounts, biomass is generated everyday in the form of household garbage, yard clippings, waste from industrial processing of natural fibers such as wood, and harvesting trees and agricultural products.
Biomass has been shown to be useful in almost all methods of producing energy that fossil fuels can be used for. Increased use of biomass has, and will continue to result in reduced dependence on fossil fuels to meet the energy needs of the human race. As new techniques for harvesting the stored energy in biomass become available, it is possible that mankind's dependence on fossil fuels will be eliminated completely and replaced with completely renewable energy sources.
At the present time, biomass energy production only accounts for less than two percent of the energy used in the US each year to produce electricity. It is, however, becoming a more major source of fuel in the forms of biodiesel and flex fuel, a combination of gasoline and ethanol.