For me, one of life’s little pleasures during the winter months is relaxing in my living room and soothing myself under the warmth of a slow-burning log nestled in my fireplace. One of these days I’ll get myself a dog and a pipe and the setting will be complete. But until that moment I relish in the fact that this little act of self-indulgence is actually a cutting-edge example of the future of energy production: the future of BIOPOWER.
BioPower is one of those new hi-tech terms that are being tossed around these days like it was the re-discovery of the wheel. Biopower is really an evolution of the term biomass-energy — which refers to energy (like the heat that warms a room thanks to the fire in a stove) that is generated by the consumption of biodegradable materials like wood, agricultural waste and even more recently sewage.
These materials — when burned — release carbon dioxide just like fossil fuels. But the concept is a little more complicated than that. The difference — according to www.energystorm.org – is that coal and natural gas discharge carbon dioxide captured millions of years ago, while biomass emissions are balanced by CO2 which is captured during growth (and which is a time-period a heck of a lot less than a million years or more).
This concept is so exciting for America’s future energy needs, that the Department of Energy (www.energy.gov) created the National BioEnergy Center (www.nrel.gov/biomass/national_bioenergy). One of the center’s most ambitious projects is referred to as “gasification.” Gasification systems use extreme heat in a low-oxygen environment to convert agricultural waste (or any biomass into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that in turn can be burned in a boiler or can replace natural gas in a turbine engine.
I can tell you’re scratching your head — but try to follow me here. Consider that this conversion process can increase energy-efficiency by 10 percent and exit gases can be harnessed to run a steam turbine engine for an additional second round of power generation.
Pretty cool if you ask me.
When you consider how much garbage is accumulated on a daily/weekly and monthly basis, hopefully it’s easy to see that waste-heat could be used to warm buildings or even entire towns.
O-k, let’s take it one step further. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.gov) — also referred to as the NREL — points out that biomass materials (trees, grasses, agricultural crops or other biological material) can be converted all in the same facility, in what is being touted as a biorefinerywhich will convert biomass into a range of valuable fuels, chemicals, materials, and products — much like oil refineries and petrochemical plants do. The NREL is working to develop cost effective, environmentally friendly biomass conversion technologies to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, while at the same time improving our air quality, and support rural economies.
Wood is still the largest biopower energy resource today. But seeing as we don’t want to chop down all our trees, and that re-forestation efforts take time, other sources of biomass can also be used. According to www.greenbiz.com, feedstocks such as corn (for ethanol) and soybeans (for biodiesel), both surplus crops can be used as biomass fuels. In the near future — and with NREL-developed technology — agricultural residues such as corn stover (the stalks, leaves, and husks of the plant) and wheat straw will also be used. Long-term plans include growing and using dedicated energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses, that can grow sustainably on land that will not support intensive food crops. Even the fumes from landfills (which are methane, a natural gas) can be used as a biomass energy source.
Pardon the pun, but I hope that you’re starting to warm up to the idea of biopower. According to www.ethanol-gec.org, the U.S. Department of Energy has even formed a new Virtual Bioenergy Center to coordinate research and development efforts aimed at creating bio-based fuels, products and chemicals. Located at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, U.S. Department of Energy hopes the “virtual” research center will provide the industry with a central point for access to research.
If there was ever a time when we started to seriously look at alternative forms of energy it was probably…20 years ago. But because 20 years ago we didn’t seem to be taking the threat of diminished resources seriously, it’s a case of “better later than never.”
The technology of BioPower is the wave of the future and for once it seems like the future looks a little brighter.