April 25, 2005
US Government Report Sees Big Potential For Biomass Energy

30% of transportation fuel could be extracted from farms and forests.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 21, 2005 Relief from soaring prices at the gas pump could come in the form of corncobs, cornstalks, switchgrass and other types of biomass, according to a joint feasibility study for the departments of Agriculture and Energy.

The recently completed Oak Ridge National Laboratory report outlines a national strategy in which 1 billion dry tons of biomass any organic matter that is available on a renewable or recurring basis would displace 30 percent of the nation's petroleum consumption for transportation. Supplying more than 3 percent of the nation's energy, biomass already has surpassed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy, and researchers believe much potential remains.

"Our report answers several key questions," said Bob Perlack, a member of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division and a co-author of the report. "We wanted to know how large a role biomass could play, whether the United States has the land resources and whether such a plan would be economically viable."

Looking at just forestland and agricultural land, the two largest potential biomass sources, the study found potential exceeding 1.3 billion dry tons per year. That amount is enough to produce biofuels to meet more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels, according to the report.

Such an amount, which would represent a six-fold increase in production from the amount of biomass produced today, could be achieved with only relatively modest changes in land use and agricultural and forestry practices.

"One of the main points of the report is that the United States can produce nearly 1 billion dry tons of biomass annually from agricultural lands and still continue to meet food, feed and export demands," said Robin Graham, leader for Ecosystem and Plant Sciences in ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division.

The benefits of an increased focus on biomass include increased energy security as the U.S. would become less dependent on foreign oil, a potential 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an improved rural economic picture.

They are expecting about three quarters of the biomass to come from agricultural lands. But will the processing to this biomass material consume more energy than it will produce? Biomass crops have to be planted (though some biomass will be in the form of left over stalks of corn and other grain crops). Then the biomass has to be collected and transported to processing sites. The processing sites use energy as well. Future technological advances will lower processing costs and processing sites will become more energy efficient. But transportation energy costs will remain a bigger problem. Perhaps mini-processing plants that can be set up on farms will eventually reduce some of the transportation costs.

You can read the full text of the report (PDF format). I'm not excerpting from it because the authors of the report set its security properties to disallow copying selected sections of text. Given that this document is made by the US government at taxpayer expense for free distribution the logic of this choice escapes me.

As an example of advances being made in biomass conversion a team of researchers have developed a way to use bacteria to produce hydrogen out of biomass.

Using a new electrically-assisted microbial fuel cell (MFC) that does not require oxygen, Penn State environmental engineers and a scientist at Ion Power Inc. have developed the first process that enables bacteria to coax four times as much hydrogen directly out of biomass than can be generated typically by fermentation alone.

Dr. Bruce Logan, the Kappe professor of environmental engineering and an inventor of the MFC, says, "This MFC process is not limited to using only carbohydrate-based biomass for hydrogen production like conventional fermentation processes. We can theoretically use our MFC to obtain high yields of hydrogen from any biodegradable, dissolved, organic matter -- human, agricultural or industrial wastewater, for example -- and simultaneously clean the wastewater.

"While there is likely insufficient waste biomass to sustain a global hydrogen economy, this form of renewable energy production may help offset the substantial costs of wastewater treatment as well as provide a contribution to nations able to harness hydrogen as an energy source," Logan notes.

The new approach is described in a paper, "Electrochemically Assisted Microbial Production of Hydrogen from Acetate," released online currently and scheduled for a future issue of Environmental Science and Technology. The authors are Dr. Hong Liu, postdoctoral researcher in environmental engineering; Dr. Stephen Grot, president and founder of Ion Power, Inc.; and Logan. Grot, a former Penn State student, suggested the idea of modifying an MFC to generate hydrogen.

In their paper, the researchers explain that hydrogen production by bacterial fermentation is currently limited by the "fermentation barrier" -- the fact that bacteria, without a power boost, can only convert carbohydrates to a limited amount of hydrogen and a mixture of "dead end" fermentation end products such as acetic and butyric acids.

However, giving the bacteria a small assist with a tiny amount of electricity -- about 0.25 volts or a small fraction of the voltage needed to run a typical 6 volt cell phone -- they can leap over the fermentation barrier and convert a "dead end" fermentation product, acetic acid, into carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Logan notes, "Basically, we use the same microbial fuel cell we developed to clean wastewater and produce electricity. However, to produce hydrogen, we keep oxygen out of the MFC and add a small amount of power into the system."

The conversion of existing sewage processing facilities into biomass energy extractor operations holds more promise because the cost of waste processing is already being paid.

Whether genetically engineered bacteria or inorganic catalysts turn out to be more efficient approaches for biomass conversion remains to be seen. But I'd prefer solar photovoltaics over biomass so that humans do not compete as much with other species for use of the land.

Also see my previous post "Is Corn Ethanol A Good Energy Source?" which includes a report of another recent advance in methods to more efficiently convert biomass materials into useful fuels.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 25 12:22 PM  Energy Biomass

Joseph said at April 25, 2005 1:19 PM:

I've tried several times to figure out what I believe is the most important issue with this. What is the amount of non-powerplant supplied energy used versus a given amount of fuel created. Just assume that electrical power requirements are met by Nuclear/Renewable and therefor don't enter the equation. Consider any fuel generated during the process but used by the processing plant for production purposes to be a simple reduction of the final product amount. What, if any, external resources in addition to the biomass are needed during the process and what is their energy balance?

Methanol production is supposedly a net loss. Biodiesel I'm not sure. In the case of biodiesel (which uses methanol during it's formation process) the production example I found was 25000 tons of mass producing 10000 gallons at a production price of $1.76 per gallon. I have to assume this doesn't figure in transportation/distrobution costs and applicable taxes (and the taxes will have to be paid in one form or the other especially if people want the roads maintaned). I could not find any figures relating to energy input.

Once again discount the use of energy from the assumed nuclear/renewable sources. Include energy balance of products needed during the biomass process. Is it a net gain or loss now? I would expect proponents to be trumpeting this type of info if there was a really noticeable net gain. I'm left feeling very vague about the whole thing without even looking at the land/water use issues and prices of product. Seriously it's easy enough to make gold if you're willing to burn platinum to do it but you'll go broke pretty quick.

Ken said at April 25, 2005 3:08 PM:

I suppose this topic will prove another donnybrook like those about nuclear power.

Short answer: there is no answer about biomass. only answers about how it works now. not very well.

The problem with biomass: it is only better than nothing at all. It has many of the problems of coal, gas, and oil, plus a few unique to itself. It is less efficient than any of them. But it is renewable and relatively safe.

Biomass may improve dramatically because the process has so many steps. You must grow the biomass, genetic engineering will boost crop yields. You must target the end product - alcohol, hydrogen, methane - each has different efficiency when used, stored, transported, or produced. And you must predict the future of rapidly improving devices and catalysts.

With everything changing any biomass claim can be made with a straight face.

In contrast. We will not raise the efficiency of coal, gas, and oil by much, or lower the cost. We will not increase the efficiency of solar, wind, or nuclear very much but may slash the costs.

Joseph said at April 25, 2005 5:07 PM:


Hmm spent another couple of fruitless hours trying to find information. If the energy balance came out positive, after stripping out the input from potential nuclear/renewable power and products sources AND they could get the financial backing then I have no problem with it. They're wellcome to give it a go. I would have no problem with it even if it was a work in developement as long as there was some good surety of it reaching an acceptable return.

But also would the economics support it? If after reaching the constraints I gave they had say 50% gain overall then yeah probably worth it with current trends in fuel prices. But would it be worth it if they only had say a 10% gain? At what point would the diversion of workforce and resources not make sense? I'd really like to see an authoritative break down on this. I read the one article concerning methanol being an energy sink. But was it a total energy sink or would it be positive if you stripped out the areas I mentioned in the first paragraph?

This isn't an attempt to cast stones. Keep in sight the high volume of material collection, handling, processing and disposal required for this. This process would be fairly labor, land and equipment intensive so it needs to have a good solid benefit. It might be okay, as Randall mentioned, for solid waste disposal but impractial for other uses. Oh well if this is a seriouse project maybe someone will finally release solid numbers.

gustable said at April 26, 2005 2:13 AM:

I'm of the opinion that biomass is a bad idea, but an interesting one popped up today. Butanol, the 4 carbon alcohol has an energy density of equivalent value to that of gasoline, and can be treated as such in all IC automobile engines. Generally produced through anaerobic bacterial means, butanol is not produced in high enough quantities to warrant much attention. The by-products associated with the ABE method (old) are methanol and ethanol.
However, a new aggressive method has been found, and (www.butanol.com) EEI is trying to raise funding for their pilot plant.
Since currently there is little to no subsititute for the transportation fuel shortage, biodiesel and ethanol, though unsustainable for the obvious resource hungry reason, are a good short term fix. The problem is that only a small percentage of vehicles can use these fuels (only some of the newer DFI cars: Explore, Suburban, Sebring, Caravan, Avalanche, Titan, Benz 520 and of course any diesel). That leaves the majority of non-wealthy automobile owners in a real tight spot.
Clearly in the short term an alternative fuel is neede and it looks as though biomass fuels are a good short term solution...that should be discarded immediately once efficient and effective solar cells and synthetic-hydrocarbon or light batteries are released on the market.
Darn I'm gettin downright preachy. Startin to sound like Randall.

Ken said at April 26, 2005 5:01 AM:

I'll discuss biomass and why you can't get facts later.

Right now I want to highly recommend the article in the current New Yorker Magazine about global warning. You will not find a better non-technical look at what is going on. The article is in 3 parts. Parts 2 and 3 will follow. The New Yorker is a weekly.

The New Yorker varies from crap to gold. They never can resist slamming Bush but this article stays on target and only sneers harmlessly once or twice.

Mr. Econotarian said at April 26, 2005 8:17 AM:

The energy in versus out for fermented carbohydrates ranges from even to a net gain, depending on a lot of different factors such as feedstock and agricultural yields.

I think the real future is in genetically engineered cellulases. There is a huge amount of waste cellulose matter around, if you could break that down and use it (short of just burning the stuff), it would be a boon.

A 1997 study showed that cellulase enzyme suitable for cellulose hydrolysis is available, but the cost was not economical. Given the current price of oil, that may have changed.

Mr. Econotarian said at April 26, 2005 8:23 AM:

Oh, guess what, cellulose ethanol is now a reality from Iogen.

Engineer-Poet said at April 26, 2005 9:50 AM:

Biomass better than nothing?  Tad W. Patzek and David Pimentel have a draft paper which argues that existing biomass schemes, including tree farming, both erode and deplete the soil of organic matter and are unsustainable.  Patzek has a similar paper about corn ethanol (maize), which argues that corn ethanol is still well below energy breakeven; the obvious conclusion is that we should end subsidies and blending requirements immediately.  Both papers are very long and I have not come close to finishing either one, so I cannot discuss or argue with the assumptions or methodology.

The biomass paper does not appear to discuss grasses, so it's possible that the conclusions do not apply to switchgrass farming.

I have seen relatively little on the merits of bio-oil, the product of rapid pyrolysis of wood at ~550 C.  This creates a mixture of small molecules including organic acids and water (15-30%) and has roughly 60% of the energy value per volume of #2 diesel.  If this bio-oil could be produced from slash and bark near logging sites and the ash returned to the soil, the fuel so produced could power the trucks and equipment.  This might make brush-clearance and forest thinning operations pay for themselves without any production of large-dimension lumber.  I fail to see any large difference between brush clearance by burning and clearance by cutting with return of minerals via ash.  Bio-oil production efficiency is about 75% of the input biomass under optimal conditions; the rest becomes gases and ash/char.  If this bio-oil could be produced from the likes of switchgrass, it might be a good bridge.

Higher plants are very inefficient compared to direct solar conversion; an acre of photovoltaics is going to out-produce an acre of switchgrass, bamboo or sugar cane by an order of magnitude, perhaps two.  The roof of a typical house receives more than enough energy to power and heat the house at current efficiencies; if we can get anywhere near the 55-60% efficiencies promised by either full-spectrum or quantum-dot converters, we're only going to need biomass to replace carbon losses in closed-loop systems.

Randall Parker said at April 26, 2005 10:13 AM:

My major objection to biomass is that all that cellulose is currently getting used by other species. All the additional land that would be brought into biomass production is currently supporting deer, wolves, squirrels, hundreds of bird species, and countless other species.

E-P is exactly right: We could use a far smaller number of acres to get energy if we use photovoltaics instead of biomass. Plus, we can use acres that are already covered by human structures.

I think there are some limited roles for biomass energy. For example, I have no objection to harvesting energy from sewage. Also, in my town we have a separate trash can for yard clippings. All that green mass could be converted into useful energy given some biotech or chemistry advances to produce suitable catalysts. But I want lots of wilderness and see biomass as a threat to wilderness areas.

BBM said at April 26, 2005 1:00 PM:


I'm not a big fan of biomass or ethanol. But I think that an appraisal of ethanol has to take into consideration what goal you're trying to achieve. If the goal is promotion of renewable sources with no net CO2 production, then ethanol doesn't look so good, obviously, if it is net negative.

But if your goal is mitigation of foreign oil use, then it might be acceptable to have a net negative energy balance if you are basically using mainly coal based energy to process the materials to produce ethanol, as long as it reduces foreign oil use. Of course, this would then have to be compared to the economics of deriving oil directly from coal, etc.

Joseph said at April 26, 2005 1:08 PM:

Well the only system I've found that appears to have decent info and a practical plan is the polymerization system from those people at Changing World Tech.. Their claimed output balance seems decent though they don't address say a pure cellulose based input. All the other systems I've seen still leave me feeling vague about practicality.

Now if someone could just produce a 60 WHr per lb density battery that could rapid recharge, operate down to -50F without unbearable loss and wasn't rediculousely expensive then most problems would be solved:)

Engineer-Poet said at April 26, 2005 2:31 PM:


But if your goal is mitigation of foreign oil use, then it might be acceptable to have a net negative energy balance if you are basically using mainly coal based energy to process the materials to produce ethanol...
Corn is fertilized with nitrogen fixed using natural gas, cultivated, sprayed and harvested with fuel and materials derived from petroleum, and distilled with more natural gas or petroleum (propane).  Gas is so expensive that firms are buying oil instead, and I am aware of no ethanol distilleries using coal for process heat.  Nitrate fertilizer is now largely imported, so that's either a non-load on domestic supplies or another area of vulnerability to disruption depending on the tack you take.

Regardless, ethanol from corn is just a raid on the taxpayer's pocket with negative benefits for our security.  If we are really fighting a war for energy, its advocates should be branded traitors.

Argus said at April 27, 2005 7:28 AM:

Ethanol from corn is fine for whiskey makers but not for biofuel.
Comparing photovoltaics with biomass is an example of comparing apples and oranges. Photovoltaics work best in dry sunny climates at low latitudes, such as the desert southwest. Biomass works fine in cloudy wet climates with little direct sunlight. The potential for improving biomass through biotech is significant, the growth curve having barely been touched. Butanol fermentation from plant fiber may be the best approach to biofuels yet. With biotech, if you can imagine it, you can probably do it given enough work. The economics follows predictably with scaling up to industrial quantities.

Ken said at April 27, 2005 10:31 AM:

Engineer-Poet at 2:31 PM said what I intended to say about biomass. From sowing to gas-pump it is subsized at several points, and there is no one definition of biomass, it is variety of processes. So we can't say what the real cost is, or the efficiency, or how cost will change if biomass is ramped up into a major industry, or the effect on foreign policy and payments.

E-P perhaps misread my remark. I said "biomass was ONLY better than nothing" not that it was "better than nothing". Right now I think it inferior to almost every option. But there is a lot of promising research - and that should be encouraged. The holy-grail is to deal with celluose at production and with carbon before it comes out the tailpipe.

I do see one excellent use for biomass - it can convert wastes, especially animal, to fuel. Joesph mentioned New World Solutions, a company now producing oil from a variety of wastes. The main input now is from chickens and turkeys. However the process seems to work on anything remotely organic. New World is privately held, partly by Conagra. I am a stockholder of the latter and wish I buy into NW directly.

Joseph said at April 27, 2005 4:27 PM:


Hmm if by chance you get any info through stockholder updates please slip the info in if you get an appropriate chance. The company is a bit laggerdly in updating their site since it's a non-public company. They do interest me quite a bit. It does have good potential I think if they can scale it up (what the devil, even if we went to a pure H2 economy the oil product would be fairly easy to crack and since it's a non-fossil product it supposedly wouldn't need carbon sequestering).

Engineer-Poet said at April 27, 2005 5:41 PM:

Changing World Tech's process would have an even bigger place in a hydrogen economy; if you aren't pumping oil or digging coal, where else are you going to get the feedstocks for your plastics and such?

Joseph said at April 27, 2005 6:21 PM:


Very good point. I found some reference to further processing of oil refinery residue. Definetly worth watching.

Randall Parker said at April 27, 2005 9:03 PM:

The CWT pilot plant at the (Conagra?) turkey processing facility relies on the concentration of the biomass at that facility being paid for by the sale of the processed turkey meat. It also relies on the fact that the turkey fat has a high caloric content per weight. Maybe it is cost effective for plants that process meat. But that is a long way from showing that the same technology will produce energy cheaply enough to justify paying for the harvesting and shipment of biomass to such a plant solely to be processed by that plant.

Periodically I get emails asking why I haven't posted on the CWT turkey waste energy plant. Well, so far I haven't seen evidence that their approach will work for biomass that is more dispersed and of lower energy cotent.

I reiterate why I prefer solar over biomass: It takes far less ground space and can be used on buildings and on land that supports little wildlife or plant life. Biomass has some waste processing niches where it might be a net benefit. But beyond those niches think it has big downsides.

KenS said at April 27, 2005 10:11 PM:

I now write as KenS not Ken. There is another "Ken" active although we have not met on the same topic yet.

I don't see the CW process as a major energy player because biomass still faces the carbon problem. Carbon sequestering - which haunts oil, natural gas, coal, and all alcohols - is badly needed.

Re: the NW process. We have a lot of animal wastes, every chicken, cow, and pig makes them daily until slaughter, then the carcass becomes waste - either discarded directly like feathers and hair or discarded by people after they eat the meat. Reducing waste is where I see the immediate future of biomass - making fuel from unpleasantries we must handle anyway.

The US is not facing an oil shortage. But the smoothed price of oil is going up and there is no reason to expect a change. The US has large reserves of the preferred light crude and of heavy crude. Heavy is not pumped, the refining costs are too high. Little light crude is pumped because foreign oil is cheaper. As costs rise our domestic output would rise if new refineries can be built. Our large deposits of oil shale and tar sands are not price competitive now.

Still plentiful oil is dying. It will last for, pick one (1,10,20,30,40,in your dreams). The situation with gas parallels oil.

Coal is our energy gorilla. We have it - and having it is pretty much the only merit of coal. It tears up the landscape, lungs, produces acid rain and CO2 while spewing trace sulfur, uranium and arsenic into the air. These blessings can be alleviated but the costs become enormous. And someday we will deplete coal also.

Expect fusion in 2015. And by 2010-2012 solar will be routine. Microwave energy from space? Never. Won't the immense collectors be solar sails? Not to mention costs. Nemo knows.

About nuclear I waver - either build better plants or decomission the ones we have. Those existing are vulnerable to terrorism. A truly disasterous accident is possible although we have 60 years without one.

Engineer-Poet said at April 28, 2005 3:27 PM:

I finished my cursory examination of the merits of "neighborhood" nuclear reactors, installed deep underground and using their waste heat for district space heat.  It's posted at It's (a) mine!.

KenS said at April 28, 2005 6:43 PM:

Go to http://www.windsofchange.net/archives/006711.php#bio
for what is said to be a raging controversy about whether biomass has a net energy gain.

Comments re. Randall's of 9:03 pm. He wrote:

"It (CWT) also relies on the fact that the turkey fat has a high caloric content per weight. Maybe it is cost effective for plants that process meat. But that is a long way from showing that the same technology will produce energy cheaply enough to justify paying for the harvesting and shipment of biomass to such a plant solely to be processed by that plant."

That implies the CWT process (now in operation) is subsidized by the processing of turkey meat. But one might equally say the cost of turkey is lowered (subsidized) by the CWT process. It depends on the market for untreated wastes.

To CWT the waste at the turkey plant is like air is to us. There is no harvesting or delivery cost. I agree that CWT-like processes are likely to be a tool for clean up and not for substantial fuel production.

CWT has said the process runs with a wide variety of organic, plastic, and rubber. I concur - that is a long way from showing same. It is also a long ways from saying not. We shall see - I wish well to the strivers of the world.

Engineer-Poet said at April 28, 2005 7:54 PM:

Actually, to CWT the turkey guts are like gold.  Well, more like oil.  They expected the gov't to prohibit the feeding of animal matter to animals and that they would get the material for free (if not paid to dispose of it), but as turkeys are not infectable with Mad Cow this didn't happen; they're now competing with others for the feedstock, so the cost of a barrel of product is $80.  They're selling under contract for $40... not good for them.

Perhaps they should have located near a beef-processing plant instead.

I've learned precious little about the required size of these plants, but I cannot but wonder; if CWT's process can be shrunk to units which can be mounted on a semi-trailer or two, they could make the rounds of tire dumps and turn the waste rubber to oil at a profit.  They're not doing this, so I have to wonder if there isn't some fly in the ointment.

Joseph said at April 29, 2005 10:46 PM:

Well CWT will be worth watching. It is a bit frustrating trying to find data. I have seen reference that they will be assuming the entire waste stream from the Butterball plant. I would assume then they've got the price per barrel down. They've also hinted that after more expansion they may offer licenses etc.. This was in response to a question concerning smaller, portable units. Time will tell I assume. We've waited 45 years for fusion (maybe only 40 more:) so a few years for this is not out of line.

Russell Gum said at May 18, 2005 8:46 AM:

It would be nice if the authors of the US government report on biomass had addressed the issue of economics. Or even any currently available processes for converting biomass to energy at a cost less than $3.00 a gallon or 10 cents a kwh. Biodiesel from biomass oil meets these criteria. What else is out there?

As to photovoltaics being more efficient than biomass, does this hold for economic efficiency as well. My guess is that with energy being produced from photovoltaics costing 20 cents a kwh, a system using biomass would produce cheaper electricity.

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