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Home Biomass

Biomass - a Burning Issue

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Biomass- Not a Green Fuel After All? – AECB Discussion Paper

The Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) is active on the global warming front, specializing in the build environment.

Pile of logs for fireplace They have recently published an internal paper on the effectiveness of Biomass as a heat source. Their findings are not good. Nick Grant and Alan Clarke submit that it is a mistake to think of biomass as “low Carbon”. They assert that burning it emits similar carbon dioxide levels as burning coal. There are better ways to use trees, they say.


Biomass - a burning issue. Full paper  Download paper as pdf 

Visit the AECB forum here to find out the views of AECB members.


Crops + Yeast = Ethanol

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Field of wheat

New yeast  ferments agricultural waste and hardwoods.

 This has come about because researchers have been looking for a way of fermenting NON-FOOD crops and waste. Thus ethanol production would not be competing with hungry mouths. 

An international team at Lund University, Sweden have been splicing genes from fungi into strains of yeast. They have created a new micro-organism, TMB3130. It shows the capacity to improved aerobic growth rate and will ferment pentose sugars.

For a fuller explanation, follow the link below.



15 June 2010

Super-Yeast Generates Ethanol From Energy Crops And Agricultural Residues - Red Orbit




Biomass puzzle under scrutiny

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Landscape with flower meadow and puzzle pieces cut from sky

The life cycle of woody biomass is often studied with blinkers on.

The missing word is “full”. True, wood captures carbon-dioxide back as it grows, but that is not the whole story. Burning organic material makes up 50 percent of all renewable energy produced in the United States, according to federal statistics. This, is facing scrutiny and opposition.

Opponents say carbon-absorbing forests will ultimately be destroyed by clean-energy subsidies. They also assert that burning biomass will generate other pollutions. State and federal regulators are now puzzling over these arguments. Gasses from biomass incineration were being ignored by Environmental Protection Agency , but not anymore. The tide is turning, and large-scale biomass projects have recently been shelved; two in Indiana and one in Florida.

The main thrusts of these arguments centre around:

  • The pollution with health risks. Burning anything produces pollutants.
  • Fuel consumed in ancillary operations. This may or may not be balanced out by the efficiency of the operation.
  • Government subsidies which skew the decision-making process when individuals stand to make financial gains. They should be phased out if and when the ecological case has been proven.
  • The Feedstocks for the burning operation. This is possibly the key to the whole conundrum.

In the US feedstocks are various: rice hulls, sugar cane residues, residues from pulp and paper plants. Groups in support of woody biomass say that regulation can answer the problems by keeping a correct balance between residues and prime products. Land use is an important component in the debate. Growing crops specifically for use in power generation is not a good balance. Taking residue from other operations is a good balance.

Ben Larson of the Union of Concerned Scientists is quoted as saying, “The key question is the rate of use,” He wants to consider which sources are used and look at land usage in the long term.

Critics say that there will never be enough residual material to keep large-scale plants operational. Owners will be in a financial squeeze and be forced to seek other materials and eventually feed whole trees into the project.

Other critics are more worried about the pollutants. A website, No Biomass Burn , compares the emissions to Cigarette smoke. They have the backing of the American Lung Association. Other bodies say that this can be controlled

One thing is for certain: human nature (greed) will always drive most decisions. We would be better to rely on good science, not “good regulation”.



 To read the full article follow the link below.

 18 June 2010   Net Benefits of Biomass Power Under Scrutiny  The New York Times


Filomena Scalise



Is Woody Biomass the Solution?

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Is Woody Biomass the answer to our Global Warming? Probably not !

The pros and cons of woody biomass are explored in the New York Times. What seemed a good answer a while ago is now looking less good as all the implications are realised. Like most disappointments, it seems obvious now the facts have been fully laid out.

Plants grow – carbon CAPTURED, plants burned – carbon RELEASED. Sounds like a balancing act. Why did it take so long to remember that chain saws burn petrol. And paying the loggers. And running the transport. Etc., etc., etc.

Tom Zeller jr investigates with an interview with JM Hagan, president of the Manomet Centre in Massachusetts. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences has produced a study of the impact of using wood to produce energy in that same state. The study team’s leader was Thomas Walker.

There are several key points to consider:

  • While it is a disappointing truth that biomass is not a zero-sum game, it is still potentially a better answer that burning oil or coal. As above there are the other on-costs to consider, but the on-costs for burning hydrocarbons are probably much higher. Most notable recently being the Golf of Mexico. Over the long term trees will grow and capture carbon again, but there is a delay.
  • One must make a distinction between different biomass sources. Using forest debris, farm waste or industrial left-overs is very different to growing a specific crop either in a field or a forest.
  • Energy security is also part of the equation, especially for the USA.
  • Air quality.

For a fuller analysis of these points go to


24 Aug 2010

Q. and A.: Woody Biomass, Pros and Cons

The New York Times






Ehtanol Subsidies Evaporating?

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Scramble for ethanol subsidies as public scepticism and wary lawmakers put billions out of reach.

The USA is attempting to improve its green credentials with a 45 cent a gallon subsidy, but may cut this to 36 cents. Like many bits of taxation legislation, this subsidy is due to expire soon anyway.

There are many players in this game: The house Ways and Means Committee , an industry group named Growth Energy , the Renewable Fuels Association and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to name but a few.

Tom Vilsack, Agricultural Secretary, maintains that the Obama administration is committed to supporting biofuels with the tax incentives. Some critics say the fuel industry should stand on its own feet. This has apparently been going on for 30 years.

It has been suggested that producing corn for ethanol is making animal feed more expensive, raising prices at the grocery store and using valuable land for the wrong purposes.

Growth Energy says that ethanol is a strategic answer to reducing the US dependence on oil from abroad. Also the recent Gulf Oil spill is sited as a motivation for turning to biofuels.

The debate rages on. See a fuller article on this at:

By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press Writer Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press Writer – Fri Jul 16, 9:54 am ET





Algae-powered Jets

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US navy experiments with algae-based jet fuel

The US navy has taken delivery of 1,500 gallons of algae-based jet-fuel. The fuel was developed by Solazyme, based in San Francisco. A contract was awarded to Solazyme in September of 2009.

The navy is intending to have half its fuel requirements met by renewables by 2020. This is a brave commitment. Ecogiggle likes this.

The technology was provided by UOP (Honeywell). The fuel is known as HRJ-5 and claims to provide an 85% reduction in greenhouse gasses. The fuel meets technical specs laid down in ASTMD 7566. This is aimed at fuels which use synthetic hydrocarbons. This is a critical milestone.



Tim Beach


Andrew Charlesworth, BusinessGreen, 20 Jul 2010



Biomass Complexity Problem

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Complexity Tarnishes Biomass Silver Bullet

Bio mass has been the buzzword for a few years now, but the silver bullet has become tarnished by hidden complexity. Our Ecogiggle researcher looks under the covers of several biomass strategies. 

First, what is biomass? As far as I can see biomass refers to the feedstock used when generating energy from organic materials. Hydrocarbons (coal, tar, oil, gas, and petrol) are not regarded as organic in this view. So essentially we are left with wood and household/food waste. This will include kitchen waste, by products from timber mills, waste from food processing plants etc. Further research will probably turn up other definitions. Nor are we talking about other more direct energy conversions like tide power, wave power, wind power or solar power.

 As an energy assessor ( , I have discovered that the line of supply of fuels can have a considerable effect on overall efficiency. In UK households using mains natural gas, the efficiency rating is very good. Yet if a similar gas (LPG) is delivered to the household in bottles, the efficiency rating drops to reflect the inefficiency of delivering small quantities by local road transport.

 This delivery mechanism effect is one of several factors that plague the Biomass solution. Another problem is competition for the feedstock. Where sugar cane or corn is grown to feed into ethanol production, there arises the fact that food is being sacrificed for fuel.

 Another problem shows up if you look at the over-all ecological energy/carbon cycle. We know that the carbon-dioxide in the air is used by plants and one of the outputs is oxygen. This locks the carbon into the wood fibres until it is released again when the wood is burnt. A Biomass argument is that growing trees to burn them is a good idea because we are just re-cycling the carbon. There are two problems with this argument:

            * This does not reduce the carbon-dioxide already present in the atmosphere.

            * Extra carbon-dioxide is produced by the activities surrounding the growing, cutting and burning of the trees.


Beyond these mundane arguments that we mere mortals have to contend with, there are other groups of people looking at this whole thing from a different angle. ECONOMICS, POLITICS and SECURITY need to be considered. Governments will interfere on our behalf. For example the feed-in tariff for micro-generation in the EU distorts the electricity market well out of reality. Is this the right thing to do?

Ecogiggle has uncovered several news articles that explore these strands in greater depth. Have a look at Bee in the Bonnet for a continuation of this article. 

Filomena Scalise




Biofuel study looks at Nitrogen Requirement and cost to environmental diversity

Biofuel crops seem to have costs that have been overlooked. Namely the Nitrogen cost and secondly the cost to biodiversity. Ths is a consequence of growing "monocultures". That is to say growing vast areas of only one plant.

These problems are being studied by a team of scientists based at Texas AgriLife Research and Extension centers. They want to solve both problems. They are looking at the cost of nitrogen and ways to preserve habitat for valued species.

Various types of legumes have been trialled as sources of nitrogen. They are looking at sustainable production of cellulosic biomass whilst paying attention to resource conservation and wildlife stewardship.

Smith, one of the researchers, knows that legumes cause much less depletion of the soil's nitrogen supply. Cool-season legumes like clovers and warm-season legumes such as cowpeas are good examples of this feature. Not having to replace the Nitrogen has a big impact on the overall climatic equation.Questions are being asked about the most effective mix of crops and keeping the application of fertilizers as low as possible.

Additionally drought has to be considered.It would be a poor choice to use crops that need to be re-seeded after a dry spell. The crops need to be reasonably hardy. This is of particluar interest to these scientists who are based in Texas remember.

Meanwhile attention has to be paid to the wildlife that might feed off these crops. There is uncertainty about how wildlife will adapt to new crops.

A full atricle on this topic may be seen at:

federico stevanin





Bee in the bonnet

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