Biomass history covers the entire life of our planet. Its natural organic base material formed to become the coal and oil used as a a major energy source today. The use of biomass as an energy source began when cave men first discovered fire. They used wood and other organic products to heat their caves and cook food. However, it did not receive the name it has today until the 1970's.
Around 1975 the actual name 'biomass' came into being. The cost of imported oil and the problems with mining coal make the option to use abundant natural materials very attractive.
Wood has historically been the main fuel source and remains the largest biomass energy source today. Examples include forest residues, yard clippings, wood chips and even municipal solid waste.
WHAT IS BIOMASS?
Biomass is a biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. In the context of biomass for energy this is often used to mean plant based material, however biomass can equally apply to both animal and vegetable derived material.
Biomass is carbon based and is composed of a mixture of organic molecules containing hydrogen, usually including atoms of oxygen, often nitrogen and also small quantities of other atoms including alkali, alkaline earth and heavy metals. The carbon used to construct biomass is absorbed from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) by plant life, using energy from the sun.
The vital difference between biomass and fossil fuels is one of time scale. Biomass takes carbon out of the atmosphere while it is growing, and returns it as it is burned. If it is managed on a sustainable basis, biomass is harvested as part of a constantly replenished crop. This is either during woodland, agricultural management, coppicing, or as part of a continuous programme of replanting; with the new growth taking up CO2 from the atmosphere at the same time as it is released by combustion of the previous harvest. This maintains a closed carbon cycle with no net increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.
There are a number of technological options available to convert biomass to energy including:
- Combustion: The oldest and most common way of converting biomass to electricity is to burn it to produce steam, which turns a turbine that produces electricity. The problems with direct combustion of biomass are that much of the energy is wasted and that it can cause some pollution if it is not carefully controlled.
- Co-firing: An approach that may increase the use of biomass energy in the short term is to mix it with coal and burn it at a power plant designed for coal; a process known as co-firing. Through gasification, biomass can also be co-fired at natural gas-powered plants. The benefits associated with biomass co-firing can include lower operating costs, reductions of harmful emissions, greater energy security and lower carbon emissions.
- Gasification: By heating biomass in the presence of a carefully controlled amount of oxygen and under pressure, it can be converted into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide called syngas. This syngas is often refined to remove contaminants. Equipment can also be added to separate and remove the carbon dioxide in a concentrated form. The syngas can then be run directly through a gas turbine or burned and run through a steam turbine to produce electricity.
- Anaerobic Digestion: Micro-organisms break down biomass to produce methane and carbon dioxide. This can occur in a carefully controlled way in anaerobic digesters used to process sewage or animal manure. Related processes happen in a less-controlled manner in landfills, as biomass in the garbage breaks down. A portion of this methane can be captured and burned for heat and power
There are also a number of other biomass conversion technologies that typically use heat and catalysts to convert biomass into another more convenient form.
ADVANTAGES OF BIOMASS
- It is abundant; biomass is always available and can be produced as a renewable resource.
- Less pollution is generated through the production of biomass energy due to the completely natural intake, meaning there are no carbon dioxide side effects in its use.
- It has the ability to take harmful waste and turn it into a useful energy resource e.g. rubbish can be burned to create useable biomass energy.
- It will reduce the dependency on fossil fuels.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Biomass energy is produced using biological material. The realities of the economics mean that high value material for which there is an alternative market(such as good qualitytimber) are very unlikely to become available for energy applications. However there are a huge number of residues, co-products and waste that exist in the UK which could potentially become available in quantity at relatively low cost, or even negative cost where there is currently a requirement to pay for disposal.
There are five basic categories of material:
- Virgin wood from forestry, arboricultural activities or from wood processing
- Energy crops: high yield crops grown specifically for energy applications
- Agricultural residues: residues from agriculture harvesting or processing
- Food waste from food and drink manufacture, preparation and processing, and post-consumer waste
- Industrial waste and co-products from manufacturing and industrial processes.
WHERE IS IT USED?
Biomass is used worldwide for heating and cooking, but mainly in third world countries such as India and Africa. Larger scale use of biomass to generate electricity is increasing throughout the world. In Europe alone there are more than one thousand active biomass power plants. This can be expected to increase in the years to come. According to the International Energy Agency, biomass power will produce about 9.6 per cent of the world's total electricity by 2030.
Why choose a career in Biomass?
- According to the International Energy Agency, biomass is the fourth largest energy resource in the world after oil, coal and gas.
- The work is diverse, interesting and evolving.
- There is a great potential for work around the globe. Some companies with a UK base also operate overseas, so you could even find yourself abroad on secondment.
- It is a renewable energy source and therefore should have life-long prospects.
- It is a green energy source, so appeals to those who wish to play their part in protecting our environment.
WHAT PERSONNEL ARE IN DEMAND WHO SHOULD CONTACT US?
There are a wide variety of biomass related jobs across a range of disciplines. Typically the following personnel can transfer with ease with a little assistance:
Project Managers, Project Engineers, Process engineers and designers, Piping engineers and designers, Electrical engineers and designers, Mechanical engineers and designers, Structural engineers and designers, Instrumentation engineers and designers, Safety personnel, Technical Safety engineers, planning engineers, document controllers, admin personnel.
There is also a demand for senior commercial and managerial roles (eg.. business development managers, country and sales managers, those with Technical Safety experience, environmental impact assessment, government relations and project management.
In addition to this there is demand for HSE advisors, contract specialists and R&D personnel. In most instances no training will be required prior to placement, but we are able to assist where required. We will put you in touch with employers happy to engage you with your current skills and qualifications.