WHAT IS BIOMASS?
Every day you pass lots and lots of growing things. These living things are mostly plants, they suck up carbon dioxide (the stuff we breath out) and pump out oxygen (the stuff we breath in). All in all its a good system. Because plants suck up lots and lots of carbon they are an excellent way to fight global warming (as carbon dioxide is a leading green house gas).
These plants if left to there own devices will die, get buried and turn into oil or coal. This is natures way of keeping the carbon balance all nice and neat. When we dig up all that oil and coal, and then burn it, we are putting all that carbon (that nature worked for so long to put into the ground) back into the air.
This practise is, to say the least, not working out well for us. So in comes biomass energy. Bio meaning life and mass meaning stuff, biomass is usually used to refer to using plant or living matter as a fuel or a source of fuel.
WHAT IS BIOMASS ENERGY?
If we burn wood for a fire we are putting as much carbon into the air as the tree sucked out the air in the first place. In this way we are not adding or subtracting any carbon to the atmosphere, so we will not be helping to cause global warming. That is why biomass fuels are called "carbon neutral."
However if everyone one in the world burned wood for there fuel we would foul up the air pretty badly (check out some books about old London for an example) and we would run out of trees. But what if we used stuff that we would waste otherwise (like woodchips from furniture plants or dirty water from a cheese factory), or something that grows really fast (like grass, or algae). Or perhaps something we are already good at growing, like soy beans or other farm crops.
WHAT ARE SOME USES OF BIOMASS?
Just about anyone who has made a fire knows how to use biomass energy. In many industrial circumstances biomass energy can be used to make the industrial process more efficient. For instance dirty waste water filled with cheese gunk (from a cheese plant) can be used as an input into a bacteria digester to create methane which can be burned to power the cheese plant.
Or wood chips left over from a saw mill could be burned to create power for that mill. However burning things is always a dirty process that creates smoke and harmful vapors. A better way to use biomass is to use it to create methane and then hydrogen. To create methane (swamp gas) all you have to do is put biomass into some water and add certain bacteria. The bacteria do all the work. You can then capture the methane and use wind or solar power to refine that into hydrogen (using a process called steam reforming). If you burn the hydrogen all you get is water vapor and oxygen.
CAN BIOMASS BE MADE INTO A FUEL?
Biomass can be used to make liquid fuels for things like cars and generators. Ethanol is one such fuel made from corn, or other starchy plants. One of the most exciting biomass fuels is Biodiesel. But there is so much to say about biodiesel that it has its own FAQ.