Renewable Energy (Part 1)

The search for alternative energy sources is mostly due to the escalating price of oil. The United States and other countries have been researching and occasionally implementing alternative energy from domestic sources.


There are several types of biofuels and they are created using biomass conversion to achieve solid biomass, liquid fuels and a variety of biogases. Fossil fuels aren’t considered biofuels because they contain carbon that has been out of the “carbon cycle” for a long time. Biofuels are attractive because they are a viable contender to fill the need for increased energy security. Biofuels don’t have the level of greenhouse gas emissions you get from fossil fuels either.

Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting sugar or starch crops including sugar cane and corn. Cellulose from non-food sources, like trees and grasses, is also being developed as a feedstock for ethanol production. To illustrate, about 33% of all plant matter is cellulose but it varies. The cellulose content of cotton is 90% while wood is 40% to 50%. In its purest form ethanol can be used to fuel vehicles, but usually it’s added to gasoline to increase the octane and improve vehicle emissions. The United States and Brazil are substantial users of bioethanol.

Biodiesel can be made from vegetable oils and animal fats. Like bioethanol, in its purest form biodiesel can be used to fuel vehicles, but is more often used as an additive in diesel fuel to reduce the levels of hydrocarbons, particulates and carbon monoxide emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. Biodiesel is the most common biofuel in Europe.

Biodiesel is clean burning, non-toxic and biodegradable. It significantly lowers emissions that produce smog and acid rain. Made from seed crops and animal fats grown by farmers, the production of biodiesel supports agriculture and helps create more jobs.

Biomass energy can be obtained from five different energy sources: garbage, wood, waste, landfill gases, and alcohol fuels. Wood can either be harvested directly or collected from wood waste streams. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor, a waste product from processing pulp. Waste energy is the second largest source of biomass energy. The main contributors are municipal solid waste, manufacturing waste and landfill gas. Rotting garbage, along with agricultural and human waste, release methane gas, which is sometimes called “landfill gas” or “biogas.”

Biomass used for electricity generation varies by area. In the United States, forest by-products are often used. Agricultural waste is common in Southeast Asia and farm animal residues are common in the United Kingdom.

There are several technological options available to make use of a wide variety of biomass types and make them into a renewable energy source. Depending on the technology used, conversion may release the energy directly, in the form of heat or electricity, or may convert it to another form – as liquid biofuel or combustible biogas. Some classes of biomass have a number of uses, while others may have only one.

Biomass is a natural material. Converting it using different methods will garner different results:

  • Thermal conversion uses heat to convert the biomass into another chemical form.
  • Chemical conversion is used to convert biomass into other forms, whether it’s a fuel that’s more easily stored, transported or used.
  • Biochemical conversion uses bacteria and other microorganism enzymes to break down biomass. The conversion process takes place through anaerobic digestion, fermentation and composting.

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