As political and social pressure mounts to adopt more sustainable energy practices, there has been a burst of research aimed at developing new energy sources and improving existing technologies. One of those existing technologies is biomass, which has exploded in popularity for a number of reasons.
At the beginning of February, President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy aimed at reinvigorating the production of biofuels in the United States. With the stated goal of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, Obama announced that the Environmental Protection Agency had tripled its mandated U.S. biofuel production target from the 11.1 billion gallons produced in 2009 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
While the new production target would eat into U.S. dependence on oil (328 million barrels per year) and cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions (138 metric tons per year), the real motivation is far more simple. Other countries are racing ahead of the U.S. in developing what Obama referred to as a “clean energy economy.”
While not as flashy as solar or wind power, this particular flavor of green energy – which is also referred to as bio energy or biopower – has been around for more than a century and is one of the most developed alternatives to petro fuels.
“When you compare it to solar, wind and other renewable energy options, biomass is among the nearest term and lowest cost, so it’s no surprise that it’s getting a lot of attention right now,” says David Jackson, segment leader for biopower with Siemens Industry, Inc., who adds that biomass is the fastest growing renewable energy industry.
In the 1880s Henry Ford used ethanol to power one of his first automobiles, the quadricycle, and gasohol was the standard fuel for cars until petro fuels became cheap and abundant following the second world war. It wasn’t until the energy crisis of the 70s and the sudden scramble for alternatives to those formerly cheap and abundant petro fuels that biomass started making a comeback.
Today the options are wide and varied. Almost anything can be used as feedstock: corn stover, sugarcane tops, animal waste, switch grass, hemp, wheat straw, woody materials, algae, etc., to produce biofuels such as Biogas, Bioethanol, Biobutanol and Biodiesel, which can be used to heat homes, run automobiles and just generally keep the lights on.
“Biomass has a lot going for it,” insists Jackson, who immediately enumerates some advantages: “First off, it is renewable and therefore environmentally sustainable. Feedstock sources are local, common and low cost. Biogas is also based on proven technology. The science is relatively mature. We know it works. Finally, it can turn a cost center into a part of the business that generates revenue. It’s becoming more and more expensive to take stuff to the landfill. Biomass enables you to divert that, reducing or eliminating the cost of waste, and turn it into something you need: energy.”
Carpet manufacturer saves $2.5 million
Jackson points to Dalton, GA-based Shaw Industries as a case in point.
The world’s largest broadloom carpet manufacturer, Shaw, called Siemens to help develop a process for converting carpet and wood waste into steam energy, which is then used to drive manufacturing operations and thus reduce the company’s reliance on coal and fuel oil. The results were rapid and significant. The plant provided by Siemens consists of fuel preparation equipment, a gasification unit and a waste heat steam production unit, and can convert six tons of waste wood into 50,000 pounds of high quality process steam per hour. The effect on the bottom line? $2.5 million per year.
Siemens has been involved in all aspects of energy production for years – in fact, at one point or another in the generation or transmission process, about 40 percent of America’s electrical power touches a Siemens solution or component – and has a long history with the biomass industry.
How it works:
According to Jackson, converting the feedstock into a form that can be used to generate energy requires the application of relatively simple processes. “There are several technological options available for this and the best one to use depends on which feedstock you are using. You can go with thermal conversion, which will release the energy directly as heat or electricity, or opt for a chemical conversion which will convert it into a different form which is more easily used, like liquid fuel or biogas.”
Thermal conversion can happen in three primary ways:
- Combustion, (including co-firing – mixed coal/biomass combustion)
Combustion is straightforward. The feedstock is burned, similar to coal and oil, to make electricity. Pyrolysis is the chemical process associated with the decomposition of biomass materials. It is a heating process that doesn’t rely on the involvement of oxygen. Gasification involves processes that turn parts of solid biomass materials into gas.
Biochemical conversions harness and often speed up the natural processes that have evolved to break down the molecules that compose biomass materials. Essentially micro-organisms such as bacteria are used to perform the conversion process through anaerobic digestion, fermentation and composting. Other chemical processes such as converting straight and waste vegetable oils into biodiesel is transesterification.
Like any other power generation technology, all of these technologies require process automation controls leading to the rapid expansion of an entire industry, which will provide the building blocks of Obama’s nascent clean energy economy.
Says Jackson, “In Europe, Siemens has played in the biopower market for more than 20 years. Now that biopower is becoming more popular in the U.S., we are able to apply that knowledge for the benefit of U.S. customers. We can take it through the entire process, from bringing the fuel into the process automation to the output – where the power goes. We have the equipment to do all that. I don’t know of any other company that can take it from A to Z in a total solution.”
Head: Biomass Energy from the 1800s to Present
- A gas company in London, England, demonstrates the first commercial use of pyrolysis, heating biomass in an oxygen-free environment to produce a liquid oil.
- First commercially used biomass gasifier is built in France.
- Wood is the primary fuel for heating and cooking in homes and businesses, and is used for steam in industry, trains and boats.
- Gasifiers are used with engines for power generation.
- The Otto Cycle, invented by German scientist Nicolaus August Otto, is the first combustion engine to use ethanol-blended gasoline.
- Henry Ford uses ethanol to fuel one of his first automobiles, the quadricycle.
- Coal begins to displace wood used in steam generation.
- Vegetable oil is used as a diesel fuel when German inventor Rudolf Diesel demonstrates that a diesel engine can run on peanut oil.
- When designing his Model T car, Henry Ford expects ethanol to be the major fuel used by motorists. He builds an ethanol fermentation plant in Atchison, Kansas, to manufacture ethanol for motor fuels.
- Although wood remains the fuel of choice in rural homes in North America, coal begins to replace the use of wood in city homes.
- Kerosene and fuel oil begin to replace wood as primary energy source.
- In the United States, ethanol is used to fuel cars well into the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1930s, for example, more than 2,000 service stations in the U.S. Midwest sell “gasohol” (ethanol made from corn).
- After World War II, the ethanol fuel industry closes down in the United States, with the arrival of low-priced, abundant petroleum fuels.
- Electricity and natural gas displace wood heat in most homes and commercial buildings.
- Concerns about crude oil supplies and environmental quality lead to renewed interest in ethanol and other biomass energy sources. Governments begin to fund research into converting biomass into useful energy and fuels.
- Companies such as Chevron, Texaco and Amoco Oil Company begin to market ethanol-blended fuels to U.S. consumers.
- High energy prices create new interest in biomass energy in Canada. In Atlantic Canada, for example, large institutions and schools modify district heating systems to run on wood wastes.
- Biomass power plants are built in North America.
- A large biomass power industry quickly develops in California. By 1985, the state has 850 megawatts of installed biomass power capacity.
- As public concerns about environmental issues such as air pollution and climate change grow, governments in Canada and elsewhere take a greater interest in using renewable energy, such as biomass, to decrease greenhouse gases and other emissions.
- In the United States, the Clean Air Act mandates the sale of oxygenated fuels (such as ethanol-blended gasoline) in areas of the country with higher levels of carbon monoxide. The Act helps to stimulate rapid growth in the use of ethanol fuels for transportation. Ethanol production grows from 175 million gallons (approximately 663 million litres) in 1980 to 2.8 billion gallons (approximately 10.6 billion litres) in 2003.
- Increasing environmental concerns and changes in government policies spur production of biodiesel fuels in Europe and the United States.
- According to the United Nations, biomass energy consumption is about 6.7 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption.
- The Canadian government grants an excise tax exemption for ethanol used in blended fuels.
- A survey of 133 countries by the International Energy Agency shows that the biomass share of total energy consumption is 10.5 per cent.
Source: Center for Energy – http://www.centreforenergy.com/AboutEnergy/Biomass/History.aspHave an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>