Author: Siobhan McClelland, Canadian Geographic
Publish Date: Oct 11, 2013 Last Update: Sep 21, 2018
The long-standing method of converting biomass to heat is burning wood. Other methods producing heat or electricity include direct combustion, co-firing, gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion.
In its simplest form, the wood used in a fireplace to produce heat and light is biomass. However, new forms of biomass are being used to generate electricity and produce fuel as the demand for renewable energy grows.
Direct combustion, the most common method used for converting biomass, involves burning biomass in boilers. The heat from burning biomass creates steam, which spins a turbine connected to a generator. Co-firing, however, involves burning biomass with coal in a traditional power plant. This is one of the cheapest ways to produce electricity from biomass.
To gasify biomass, the product is heated at high temperatures in an oxygen-deprived environment to produce a fuel gas. Pyrolysis follows a similar process, but the gas is cooled quickly to create bio-oil, which can be burned like petroleum to generate electricity.
The final method used to convert biomass to energy is anaerobic digestion. Bacteria break down organic material, in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas as a byproduct. Mixing plant and animal wastes with water in oxygen-free tanks can also create biogas. This process occurs naturally in landfill sites that have organic waste.
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