high in carbohydrates (starches, sugars, or celluloses) through a process similar to brewing beer. Ethanol
is mostly used as a fuel additive to cut down a vehicle's carbon monoxide and other smog-causing
emissions. But flexible fuel vehicles, which run on mixtures of gasoline and up to 85% ethanol, are
Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol (usually methanol) with vegetable oil, animal fat, or
recycled cooking greases. It can be used as an additive to reduce vehicle emissions (typically 20%) or
in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines.
Other biofuels include methanol and reformulated gasoline components. Methanol, commonly
called wood alcohol, is currently produced from natural gas, but could also be produced from biomass.
There are a number of ways to convert biomass to methanol, but the most likely approach is gasification.
Gasification involves vaporizing the biomass at high temperatures, then removing impurities from
the hot gas and passing it through a catalyst, which converts it into methanol.
Most reformulated gasoline components produced from biomass are pollution reducing fuel
additives, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE).
Biopower. Biopower, or biomass power, is the use of biomass to generate electricity. There are
six major types of biopower systems: direct fired, cofiring, gasification, anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis,
and small, modular.
Most of the biopower plants in the world use direct fired systems. They burn bioenergy feedstocks
directly to produce steam. This steam is usually captured by a turbine, and a generator then converts it
into electricity. In some industries, the steam from the power plant is also used for manufacturing
processes or to heat buildings. These are known as combined heat and power facilities. For instance,
wood waste is often used to produce both electricity and steam at paper mills.
Many coal fired power plants can use cofiring systems to significantly reduce emissions, especially
sulfur dioxide emissions. Coal firing involves using bioenergy feedstocks as a supplementary
energy source in high efficiency boilers.
Gasification systems use high temperatures and an oxygen starved environment to convert biomass
into a gas (a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane). The gas fuels what's called a gas
turbine, which is very much like a jet engine, only it turns an electric generator instead of propelling a
The decay of biomass produces a gas methane that can be used as an energy source. In landfills,
wells can be drilled to release the methane from the decaying organic matter. Then pipes from each
well carry the gas to a central point where it is filtered and cleaned before burning. Methane also can be
produced from biomass through a process called anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion involves
using bacteria to decompose organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
Methane can be used as an energy source in many ways. Most facilities burn it in a boiler to
produce steam for electricity generation or for industrial processes. Two new ways include the use of
microturbines and fuel cells. Microturbines have outputs of 25 to 500 kilowatts. About the size of a
refrigerator, they can be used where there are space limitations for power production. Methane can also
be used as the “fuel” in a fuel cell. Fuel cells work much like batteries but never need recharging,
producing electricity as long as there’s fuel.
In addition to gas, liquid fuels can be produced from biomass through a process called pyrolysis.
Pyrolysis occurs when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. The biomass then turns into a liquid
called pyrolysis oil, which can be burned like petroleum to generate electricity. A biopower system that
uses pyrolysis oil is being commercialized.
Several biopower technologies can be used in small, modular systems. A small, modular system
generates electricity at a capacity of 5 megawatts or less. This system is designed for use at the small
town level or even at the consumer level. For example, some farmers use the waste from their livestock
to provide their farms with electricity. Not only do these systems provide renewable energy, they also
help farmers and ranchers meet environmental regulations.
Small, modular systems also have potential as distributed energy resources. Distributed energy
resources refer to a variety of small, modular power generating technologies that can be combined to
improve the operation of the electricity delivery system.