Bioenergy Basics

Bioenergy Basics:

"Fire is the sun unwinding from the tree's log."
-Buckminster Fuller

It all starts with the sun. Virtually all life on earth depends upon energy that originated as sunlight. Through photosynthesis, plants harness sunlight to combine carbon dioxide and water to form sugar (glucose). Solar energy is stored in those chemical bonds in sugar molecules. Plants and animals then use (consume) the chemical energy in sugar to grow and develop. As plants and animals grow and develop, that chemical energy in sugars is transferred into all kinds of other substances that make up living organisms: wood, starches, fibers, fats, protein, etc.

Biomass is a general term used to describe the mass of organisms on this planet and the substances they contain. Plants make up most of the biomass on this planet. Think about how many tons of biomass is contained in just the trees in one acre of forest! Biomass contains chemical energy that can potentially be used for a variety of purposes including heating, cooking, electricity generation and transportation.

Bioenergy refers to the forms of renewable, chemical energy contained in biomass. The simplest way to harness the energy in biomass is to burn it. Biomass (wood, grasses, organic waste) can be burned to generate heat and/or electricity. But some biomass sources can also be converted into liquid fuels such as biodiesel or ethanol than can replace diesel or gasoline in our vehicles.

If you have pumped gas recently, then you may have noticed a sign indicating that the gas contains 10% ethanol. If you have a “Flex-fuel” vehicle you have probably filled your tank with gasoline that contains up to 85% ethanol. As of 2013, ethanol accounts 10% of fuel used in gasoline engines in the U.S. Almost all of this ethanol is made from corn grain. Corn is the most abundant crop in the U.S. and it is relatively easy to convert the starch in corn grain into sugars and then ethanol.

It is also possible to convert the fibrous, inedible plants and plant parts into ethanol. Examples of other biomass sources that could be used to make ethanol or other biofuels include switchgrass, corn stalks, wood chips, agricultural waste, algae, etc. It is estimated that the U.S. could sustainably harvest enough biomass every year to produce enough biofuel to replace 30% of the fuel used for transportation. As of yet, it is not as easy to convert fibrous biomass, such as grasses or corn stalks, into sugars and then ethanol. Researchers are working hard to discover more efficient methods to make biofuels from a variety of biomass sources. In the meantime, more energy producers are using biomass to generate electricity and heat.

As we plan to use more bioenergy in the future, there are questions about what bioenergy crops should be used and whether they can be grown and harvested sustainably. Corn and switchgrass are two crops that will likely play a major role in meeting future bioenergy demand. Each crop has pros and cons related to its potential impacts on economic output, environmental benefits, and potential energy production. In addition, different farm management decisions, such as tillage practices and fertilizer application rates, will affect farm profitability, crop yields and environmental impacts. In Fields of Fuel, players have to work to balance planting and management decisions in order to achieve a sustainable outcome for their individual farm and the shared game “world.”