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Biomass is a renewable form of energy made from organic, biological, non-fossil materials, also known as biomass feedstock. Biomass can be converted into fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, butanol and other hydrocarbon-based fuels.[1] Biomass materials are carbon based and often have a mixture of organic molecules including oxygen, nitrogen and some heavy metals. It is the carbon trapped inside of biomass that makes it a potential source of energy. Plants use the energy provided by the sun to absorb CO2, that can then be used as fuel.[2]

Categories of biomass

Map of biomass resources across the U.S. by county

There are five categories of biomass.

  • Virgin wood is lumber and wood processing waste such as bark, wood chips and pellets.[3]
  • Food waste is food residue that is usually discarded during the food production process. This includes husks, shells, cores, skins and peels. The dairy and alcohol distilling industries also create a large amount of food waste that could be used to generate energy.[4]
  • Agricultural residue includes excess agricultural harvest, such as straw, farmyard manure and corn stalks.[5]
  • Energy crops are high-yield crops that are grown for energy purposes. These crops include grasses, wheat, sugar beets, corn, potatoes and rapeseed. In some areas growing these crops requires large amounts of fertilizer.[6]
  • Industrial waste is industrial and processing waste that includes untreated wood and wood composites, paper pulp, sewage and textiles.[7]

The map to the left shows the total biomass resources across the U.S. by county. Biomass resources are located across the West Coast, Midwest, the South, and South and North Coasts.


Projected biomass production growth, 2010 to 2035

In 2011 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released projections for biomass production growth. By 2035 the EIA expects biomass production to exceed 8 billion BTU a year, driven in large part by growth in cellulosic biofuels ("complex carbohydrates made up of chains of glucose"), wood, grasses and agricultural residue. The EIA further estimates that this additional biomass capacity will grow significantly after 2020 and will be used alongside fossil fuels in co-generation plants.[8][9]


In order for biomass to be used as a fuel it must be converted into another form. Conversion can happen through two means: thermal or chemical. Thermal conversion uses heat to transform the biomass chemically into fuel. These technologies include combined heat and power, co-firing, combustion, gasification and pyrolysis. Chemical conversion uses chemical processes to change the biomass to fuel, and can include biochemical conversion processes. Biochemical conversion uses enzymes to break down biomass, including anaerobic digestion, composting and fermentation to create fuel.[10]

Departments, agencies and organizations

  • The Biotechnologies Office, is partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The office works with industry, universities and national laboratories to "develop and deploy commercially viable, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower from renewable biomass resources in America to reduce our dependence on imported oil." The Biotechnologies Office focuses on creating cost-sharing partnerships that facilitate their mission.[11]
  • The National Bioenergy Center is headquartered in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and assists the DOE's Biotechnologies Office with its goals. The National Bioenergy Center was founded in October 2000 and its mission is to "foster capability to catalyze the replacement of petroleum with transportation fuels from biomass by delivering innovative, cost-effective biofuels solutions." The center is housed across five different laboratories across the United States: the NREL, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory.[12]

Laws and regulations

  • The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, The RFS set a mandate for the amount of renewable fuel that must be blended with gasoline. The first round of this mandate, RFSI, required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended by 2012. This requirement was expanded in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, creating RFSII. RFSII expanded the renewable fuel program to include diesel and increased blend requirements to 9 billion gallons by 2009 and 36 billion gallons by 2022.[13]
  • The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) was signed into law on December 19, 2007. This act aimed to increase energy independence through increased renewable energy production, energy efficiency, and fuel economy. EISA increased the RFS mandate, as described above.[14]

Economic impacts

According to a report from the Brookings Institution biofuels and biomass supported 20,680 jobs in 2010. The report further states that this industry saw annual average growth of 8.9 percent from 2003 to 2010.[15]

See also