Biomass is material that comes from plants. Plants use the light energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide to sugars that can be stored, through a process called photosynthesis. Organic waste is also considered to be biomass, because it began as plant matter. Researchers are studying how the sugars in the biomass can be converted to more usable forms of energy like electricity and fuels.
Some plants, like sugar cane and sugar beets, store the energy as simple sugars. These are mostly used for food. Other plants store the energy as more complex sugars, called starches. These plants include grains like corn and are also used for food.
Another type of plant matter, called cellulosic biomass, is made up of very complex sugar polymers, and is not generally used as a food source. This type of biomass is under consideration as a feedstock for bioethanol production. Specific feedstocks under consideration include:
- Agricultural residues (leftover material from crops, such as the stalks, leaves, and husks of corn plants)
- Forestry wastes (chips and sawdust from lumber mills, dead trees, and tree branches)
- Municipal solid waste (household garbage and paper products)
- Food processing and other industrial wastes (black liquor, a paper manufacturing by-product)
- Energy crops (fast-growing trees and grasses) developed just for this purpose
The main components of these types of biomass are:
- Cellulose is the most common form of carbon in biomass, accounting for 40%-60% by weight of the biomass, depending on the biomass source. It is a complex sugar polymer, or polysaccharide, made from the six-carbon sugar, glucose. Its crystalline structure makes it resistant to hydrolysis, the chemical reaction that releases simple, fermentable sugars from a polysaccharide.
- Hemicellulose is also a major source of carbon in biomass, at levels of between 20% and 40% by weight. It is a complex polysaccharide made from a variety of five- and six-carbon sugars. It is relatively easy to hydrolyze into simple sugars but the sugars are difficult to ferment to ethanol.
- Lignin is a complex polymer, which provides structural integrity in plants. It makes up 10% to 24% by weight of biomass. It remains as residual material after the sugars in the biomass have been converted to ethanol. It contains a lot of energy and can be burned to produce steam and electricity for the biomass-to-ethanol process.