The term bio-energy means energy that comes from organic materials such as living plants. There is a lot of research into both the production and potential of bio-energy as a fuel and energy source that could equal or take over from the traditional usage of oil and gas. This clearly has tremendous implications for everyday use, on the road in our cars and commercial vehicles, and running our homes and offices.
How is it Made?
The term bio-energy really covers two areas: bio-fuel is the transformation of plant materials into liquid fuel, and bio-mass, where solid plant materials are burnt in a power plant, and this process creates energy, which can then be for immediate use or stored.
Crops grown for conversion to bio-energy include traditional crops like oilseed rape and wheat, but increasingly farmers are being offered lucrative incentives to turn over land to unusual grasses, with a high yield, or short-rotation willow-coppice, and some forestry products.
To release the chemical energy of the plant material, it needs to be processed, which can take place either thermally, mechanically, or biologically.
Thermal processing, using the techniques of Pyrolysis, gasification and combustion, can convert materials into liquids, gas and charcoal, hydrogen, and heat. The whole process of transforming a bulk of plant materials into many types of products is referred to as bio-refinery.
Other methods of transformation include fermentation of materials to alcohol products, known as bio-ethanol and bio-butanol, now getting media attention as new green transport biofuels.
Also, plant materials, as we commonly know from home composting, can be transformed by anaerobic digestion into bio-gas, which is a mix of carbon dioxide and methane.
This technique is being explored for small-scale home use at several Sustainable Education Centres across the UK, including the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), In Wales.
How Can We Use it ?
Many individuals are now experimenting with bio-fuels for personal car use.
There are several websites devoted to engine conversion, and comparisons of different plant materials that make better quality bio-diesel.
In terms of powering ones own home, the technology is not yet advanced that the converted energy can be used on a national grid system, but some individuals and communities are trying to develop small local schemes whereby a small self-built plant generates some bio-fuel and bio-energy.
It is a good idea to check in your local area if there are any schemes you can visit. There may be enthusiastic individuals to network with in the proximity of your potential self-build site.
On the larger scale commercial level, there are several research Institutes and a National Council for Bio-Energy that are all involved in getting the processes and technology right, and then getting the products out into the public domain. They face resistance from the wealthier and more established fossil fuel lobby; the big petroleum Companies and the Investment Consortiums who control the oil-fields and the infrastructure worldwide. This is a huge political minefield. Getting the message out to a non-green minded public is a tough struggle. But it is now well-known that we need to move away from our extreme consumption of fossil fuels, which also contribute to the increase in global warming and move towards a greater emphasis on renewable bio-fuels.
Using bio-energy from organic plant materials is a way to cut down on our use of fossil fuels, by using renewable material that can be grown, harvested and re-planted on a large scale.
There are concerns by environmentalists that using this technique can cause problems for biodiversity, and result in species decline through loss of habitat, caused by the giving over of so much land to the production of material for use in this process.
Also, without proper Governmental and International controls on the production of bio-fuels, mis-management and sloppy practice could actually result in an increase in carbon dioxide being released, and no decrease in our worldwide contribution to greenhouse gases, and therefore global warming.
Having said that, it is worth further investigation and being linked in to watching new developments in this exciting and developing field of bio-energy, as it has the potential to allow us to live fully ecological lives, through using renewable materials, right on our own doorstep.