Biomass Energy / Biofuel:
Biomass describes any living or recently dead biological material that can be used as fuel, or in industrial production somehow. Biofuels include everything from fossil fuels to coal, while energy from biomass may refer to plant matter grown for use as biofuel,
plant or animal matter used in the production of heat, chemicals or fibers, and biodegradable wastes that can be burnt as fuel. However biomass energy does not include that extracted from conventional petroleum and/or coal.
Fuel from Plants?
There are currently many plants that produce biomass, including hemp, miscanthus (a fancy name for a certain type of perennial grass), switchgrass, corn, poplar, willow and sugarcane.
In many countries, like Brazil, where sugarcane plantations are plentiful as
remnants of South America's colonial history, biomass is becoming increasingly useful. In fact, Brazil is currently among the leading countries in
biofuel exports. Their biofuel is not only becoming popular abroad, but also at home. There, most gas stations provide a mixture of sugarcane ethanol and gasoline to fuel their vehicles.
Bad for the Rainforest?
However, despite the fact that biofuels are sometimes referred to as carbon neutral, that is not entirely the case. While biomass is a renewable source of energy, and relatively clean-burning, it can still contribute to global warming through the
clearing of forest in order to grow biofuel crops like corn and sugarcane. This is currently happening in the Amazon rainforest at an alarming rate. While not all the land that's cleared is used to grow sugarcane, a large portion is. To encourage the mass production of biofuel in Brazil is to wave goodbye to the largest, most beautiful and diverse rainforest habitat on earth.
Keeping an Eye on Food Production
There is also the problem of agricultural land shortages due to the mass-production of biofuels. If a majority of the land is used to grow crops used for biofuels, there is then less arable land to feed that nation's population. This is more of a problem in countries that cannot afford to import a large percentage of their food, and rely on local produce to survive. Considering this is true mostly for poor countries, especially those in Africa affected by drought and disease, it is important that countries put a limit on the percentage of arable land that is permitted to be devoted to biofuel production. If these limits can be imposed and enforced, many countries are perfect candidates for small-scale biofuel production. While any one country (at least any small one) should probably not produce enough for mass-export, biofuels can become a viable option for a nation to gain more
energy independence from their thirst for conventional fossil fuels.
Source(s): "Kill King Corn." Nature; 10/11/2007, Vol. 449 Issue 7163, pg 637.