May 24, 2012

Power Up: Biomass


Shelby: What do wood, plants, garbage, and algae have in common? Believe it or not, they can all be used to produce energy! That is because all of them contain biomass, which comes from living things, like plants and animals that absorb energy from the sun. When biomass is burned, or when is converted into other forms of power, like fuel or electricity, that energy is released, and we can use it as power.

Biomass is considered a renewable source of energy. And last year, biomass power made up about 4% of the energy used in the United States. That energy comes from a number of things. The most common source is wood. It makes up 45% of the biomass power in the U.S. Another 44% of our biomass power comes from biofuel.

“The most common biofuels that we refer to are liquid fuels because we are very dependent on petroleum to move around cars, trucks, planes, you name it.”

Shelby: So you have all these different types of oils?

“Yes. Anything that has oil — that produces an oil — like soybeans, canola oil, can be used to make biodiesel.”

Shelby: So, this can go in a car?

“That’s right. A car, a truck — anything that has a diesel engine in it.”

Shelby: Jeremy and the other scientists at the Catawba County EcoComplex are working on ways to make biofuels better.

“With that number, we make a recipe to make biodiesel.”

Shelby: The most common biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol can be produced from common crops like corn, sugar cane, and potatoes, while biodiesel is usually made from various vegetable oils or animal fats. Biofuels can be used on their own, but they are usually blended with petroleum fuels, like gasoline and diesel fuel. In fact, most of the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains 10% ethanol, known as E10. And some cars and trucks — flexible fuel vehicles — are now being made to run on blends of up to 85% ethanol.

Not only do biofuels help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but they are considered to be cleaner. That is because even though they put off greenhouse gases when they are burned, those gases are absorbed by the very plants that create biofuels.

“So, what we have is a closed loop, or a closed carbon loop. So, that’s one of the best things about biofuels is that they’re carbon neutral. It’s not putting carbon in the soil. And they can be made from local materials.”

Shelby: That is why the EcoComplex grows crops of its own to convert into fuel.

Canola is one of the many plants that can be used to create energy, and one acre of canola plants can produce 100 gallons of oil! That oil is eventually used as fuel to power the bulldozers and trucks running on the nearby landfill, but first it has to be converted into biodiesel in the manufacturing plant.

“This is the equipment is what we use to make biodiesel. Everything starts on this end, and it moves in a line, and it all goes down to that green tank there down a far end. And that green tank, it’s kind of like a gas station.”

Shelby: So, that is where you fuel up?

“That’s where you fuel up down on that end. That’s right.”

Shelby: Look at this! You can like fill right up right in this building. But the cycle doesn’t end there. Once the trucks and bulldozers fill up on biodiesel, they help make another kind of biomass energy. Eleven percent of U.S. biomass power comes from municipal waste, including trash from your homes and schools.

Americans throw away an average of 4.5 pounds of trash every day. Now, you might know that a lot of that ends up in landfills, like the one behind me. But what you might not know is that most of that trash can be converted into power. That is because when trash rots, some of it breaks down and puts off methane, a biogas. The gas is sucked up from the landfill by a series of pipes and converted into energy by generators like these.

“Here, they make three megawatts of electricity, which is enough power for 1500 homes.”

Shelby: There are about 90 waste-to-energy plants across the U.S. Together they produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Dallas for a year. And burning municipal solid waste can reduce our waste by nearly 90%!

So, if waste will always exist, trees will always grow, and crops can always be planted, why don’t we use more biomass power? Critics say some biofuels aren’t worth the trouble.

“Bad biofuels, as they are known, are exactly that. They don’t help anything and, in fact, can make problems worse.”

Shelby: Just a few years ago, some saw ethanol as a big solution to our energy crisis. Now, critics say it has raised world food prices and that it can take more energy to produce than it generates. Some say growing crops like sugarcane for ethanol and cutting down trees for fuel leads to deforestation. And when wood and waste are burned, they release harmful chemicals and pollutants, like carbon monoxide.

The U.S. government is supporting the development of biomass power, and people like Jeremy are working on ways to make it cleaner and more efficient.

Shelby Holliday, Channel One News.


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