Can someone tell me what is biomass? Is it just plants?

Until I entered the field of cleantech, I had not heard of the term biomass. Wood, yes, plants, yes, crops, yes, even crop waste, yes, but biomass? Nopes, hadn’t heard of it.

The first time I heard it, I understood that it must have something to do mainly with plants, but was not sure if it was just plants, or whether it was anything of biological origin.

In theory, biomass actually refers to any material that is of biological origin.

In the context of energy (and most other contexts in cleantech) however, biomass usually refers to plant based materials – these could be wood, stalks, leaves, roots, nuts, seeds or even the waste that is left over after processing such as sugarcane.

Biomass that is being used for energy – heat, power or biofuels – comprise a wide range of plant sources, and the type of biomass being used by a particular region usually depends on biomass that is available in plenty in that region.

Some examples of biomass and the use they are put to:

  • Oil from oilseeds (Palm, soybean, canola…) – This is used to make biodiesel, a liquid biofuel that is a replacement for diesel.
  • Corn, maize, sugarcane – These crops, rich in starch, used to make ethanol, a liquid biofuel that is a partial replacement for gasoline (petrol). The starting materials for making ethanol could extent to many more types of biomass, including wood chips and tree bark, which using newer technologies and processes could be converted to ethanol as well.
  • Agri/crop waste (Saw dust, rice husk, cotton stalk…)– use for heating or for power generation in boilers and gasifiers. This once again comprises a massive list – pretty much any plant material that is left over in the fields can be used as a fuel for heating, though some crop waste are economically more suitable than others.
  • Biomass such as garden waste and kitchen waste – These biomass typically can be used to generate biogas, through their use in what are called biodigesters (or biogas generators, for simplicity sake!)

As I mentioned earlier, when I started my cleantech journey almost a decade back, the term biomass was very confusing to me as the dictionary definition said biomass was something that you get from anything of biological origin – and that includes animals and humans. I’m sure the dictionary definition still holds good, but in practice, I now know that biomass almost always refers to stuff from plants.

Can someone tell me what is biomass? Is it just plants? - Cleantech Guide