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The Problems with Biomass Energy and its Potential as a Clean-Burning Fuel

written by: Ashwin Satyanarayana•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 7/23/2010

Biomass energy is the energy that is derived from agricultural produce, and some specific crops are already seeing rapid adoption and use in countries like Brazil. However, it has its deficiencies and research points to a serious limit that can even jeopardize our ecosystem and food chain.

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    Have you been ecstatic about the possibility of alternative fuels, especially based on all the euphoria that seems to blind us to every other objection raised about alternative fuels in favor of the fact that they promise to unshackle us from the ancient spell of the fossil fuels?

    Biomass energy, which is typically the energy produced from wasted agricultural mass or from special crops raised just for this purpose, is now being looked at as a very promising alternative fuel and is already in use. About 30% of Brazilian needs for automotive fuels are fulfilled from ethanol produced from sugar cane.

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    The Problem of Growing Biomass for Energy

    If you have noticed, this biomass energy is possible when you raise crops just for the purpose of producing these fuels which might be taking up valuable ‘land" space which was to be used for normal agricultural production. Experts are of the opinion that these “farming" methods will take a toll on the natural ecosystems and might even bring about a climate crisis.

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    Future Potential of Biomass Energy

    Biomass does score some brownie points. These forms of energy are clean-burning; they don’t produce toxic emissions and are indeed easy and cost-effective to produce. There is every possibility that it can provide for tough-to-satiate global energy needs. However, the depressing point is that it can still be a challenge.

    According to research done by in the February Trends in Ecology and Evolution, global ecology director Chris Field, with postdoctoral fellow Elliott Campbell along with others, there is a total of about 1.5 million square miles of suitable ‘abandoned’ land which shows promise to yield biomass energy. This can bring about 27 exajoules of energy which is equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil. Surprisingly, even though this looks like a lot of energy, it could meet only 5% of global energy consumption.

    Now you know why the “Green" issue has been raised. We are literally swallowing energy, aren’t we? Biomass energy does hold its promise if energy is used carefully and is the biomass energy itself is produced at a suitable, controlled and sustainable scale. Doing this excessively, however, can tumble down the food chain, bring about climatic changes, and upset the entire planet’s ecosystem.