Biomass Production Needs Careful Planning to Achieve Benefits

One way of supplying energy is to grow plant material and burn it. If managed well most of the carbon released by burning the material will be captured by the growing plants, and so have a low impact on overall levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Better still, the growing plants could be used to help solve other environmental problems. In a review of current systems, Göran Berndes from the Department of Energy and Environment at Chalmers University of Technology in Götenborg, Sweden highlights several systems. The review is published in this month’s edition of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining.

  • One set of systems currently running in Sweden grows willow trees and irrigates them with sewage effluent. This helps purify the sewage outflow at the same time as providing fuel.
  • Other systems plant willow buffers between arable land and water ways. The willow trees use nitrogen that is being leached off the land, making good use of it instead of letting it simply pollute the rivers and seas.
  • A third system that Berndes highlights is the option of growing biomass on areas of wasteland in India. Along with providing fuel, this also stops the land becoming degraded by erosion.

“We can do biofuels right or we can do them wrong. If we develop them correctly, we can achieve great environmental, economic and social benefits. It is our responsibility to look forward and shape the emerging biofuels industry so that it actually provides these benefits,” says journal editor Bruce E. Dale, Ph. D., Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, Michigan State University. “With Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining we intend to shed light on the pathways by which biofuels and bioproducts can realise their enormous potential for good.”

This edition of the journal also contains papers that review:

  • Ways of pretreating cellulose containing materials so that they are more capable of releasing the energy they store.
  • The different chemicals found in biomass. Cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin molecules contained in biomass will greatly improve the way that these resources can be exploited in commercial scale operations.
  • The use of biomass for creating many different chemicals. At the moment oil is the source of chemicals that go into substances from paints to pharmaceuticals. Biomass could provide these, either by deliberately creating them, or by harvesting by-products of fermentation processes such as biofuel production. But to be ready for a biomass driven future we need start planning appropriate biorefineries today.

A Comment - The view from the USA

In a Comment article, US Department of Agriculture employee Wally Wilhelm explains the USDA’s view point on biomass use, and argues that US policy will need to facilitate collaboration between different disciplines in order to stimulate this next generation of technology.

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