Biomass is organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy. Biomass fuels include wood, wood waste, straw, manure, sugar cane, and many other byproducts from a variety of agricultural processes.
Biomass is a renewable energy source because the energy it contains comes from the sun. Through the process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants captures the sun’s energy by converting carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground into carbohydrates, complex compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When these carbohydrates are burned, they turn back into carbon dioxide and water and release the sun’s energy they contain.
In this way, biomass functions as a sort of natural battery for storing solar energy. As long as biomass is produced sustainably—with only as much used as is grown—the battery will last indefinitely.
From the time of Prometheus to the present, the most common way to capture the energy from biomass was to burn it, to make heat, steam, and electricity. But advances in recent years have shown that there are more efficient and cleaner ways to use biomass. It can be converted into liquid fuels, for example, or cooked in a process called “gasification” to produce combustible gases. And certain crops such as switchgrass and willow trees are especially suited as “energy crops,” plants grown specifically for energy generation.