Bioenergy – What Is It and How Can It Be Used?

Biomass typically refers to organic material such as crops, crop wastes, trees, wood waste and animal waste. Some examples of biomass include wood chips, corn, corn stalks, soybeans, switchgrass, straw, animal waste and food-processing by-products.

Producing fuels and chemicals from biomass is not a new concept. Cellulose, ethanol, methanol, vegetable oils and a host of other biomass-based chemicals have been in use since the 1800′s to make products such as paint, glue, adhesives, synthetic cloth and solvents. It was not until the 1930′s and 40′s that petrochemicals began to dominate the market and displace chemicals and products derived from biomass.

Renewed Interest in Biomass

Three main factors are responsible for the renewed interest in biomass – economics, environmental concerns and national security.

First, economics are the strongest driver in renewing interest in biomass fuels and chemicals. New advances in biotechnology and bioprocesses, such as those demonstrated at BECON, can dramatically reduce the costs of producing biochemicals. When environmental benefits are factored in, biochemicals may have even lower production, handling, use and risk management costs than their petroleum-based counterparts.

Second, biomass fuels generally have less impact on the environment than fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.

Finally, our nation imports over half of the oil it uses to produce gasoline and, frequently, the most abundant oil supplies are found in politically unstable countries.

Biomass and Iowa’s Future

It makes sense that Iowa, with its significant agricultural industries, lead the way in developing and expanding the market for value-added, biomass-based fuels and chemicals.

Rather than simply selling raw materials, Iowa businesses can produce higher value, marketable products. Biomass feedstocks can be substituted for petroleum feedstocks in the production of most fuels and chemicals used today. All final products can be made from crops and crop by-products. The additional facilities needed to process and produce biofuels and biochemicals create jobs and significantly increase the financial benefit of growing agricultural crops.