Nicholas Chambers

 

Biomass energy is like a solar battery. Through the process of photosynthesis, the earth’s hydrocarbon economy is constantly banking the sun’s energy as biomass while fixing atmospheric carbon and releasing oxygen. In contrast to other biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, biomass energy technologies are primary energy sources that can utilize the raw, solid and usually by-product forms of organic resources. Two specific technologies that can be extremely compatible to New Mexico’s abundant daytime sunshine and existing solar/wind technologies are anaerobic digestion and wood chip gasification.

 

Anaerobic digestion is a wet, bio-chemical process that harnesses a primeval consortium of microorganisms to yield a methane-rich biogas. This biogas can be used to generate electricity and heat directly, be scrubbed and compressed for use as bio-methane in automobiles or natural gas grid-injection, or be used for the one remaining gap in the small-scale renewable energy portfolio: instantaneous cooking and water heating. The other co-product of anaerobic digestion is an NPK-rich organic fertilizer that is actually more valuable than the gas. Therein lies one of the principal tenets of biomass energy: the co-product is usually more valuable than the primary product. With anaerobic digestion we are investing in our soil-building and food-producing capacity just as much as we are investing in decentralized, 24/7, and carbon-neutral energy production.

 

On the other side of the biomass energy spectrum, wood-chip gasification is a thermo-chemical process where we use heat to deconstruct solid, biomass hydrocarbon molecules into the constituent gases, primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Hydrogen is widely known as the hallmark of a renewable energy future, and carbon monoxide, along with being an insidious poison, is also a fuel gas. These gases are collectively called producer gas and can be used to run a spark-fired, internal combustion engine to generate electricity. The co-product of an electrical generator set is copious amounts of hot water: 4-5 times the amount of electrical energy will be available as hot water, which can also be more valuable than the electricity. With wood-chip gasification, we are running micro-heating districts as much as we are powering communities with clean electricity, independent from the sun shining or wind blowing.

 

The other main tenet of biomass energy technologies is that they are not static energy devices like solar panels that are made in some factory and when installed produce energy without any further community involvement or economic rippling. Biomass energy involves many segments of a functioning economy by providing jobs year after year while contributing to positive stewardship of our farmlands, forests and atmosphere. There is always feedstock procurement (civil collection, farmers or forest product workers), transportation from source to bio-refinery, operations and maintenance (mechanics, fabricators and bio-refinery technicians), and the administrative support staff to keep it all happening.

 

Biomass energy installations can also have a very favorable EROI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) of 85 percent and potentially more. In the words of municipal wastewater treatment engineers who operate plants of 2-4 megawatts electrical, biogas is like “free energy,” available for the taking in the things we are already doing with organic materials we are already treating.

 

Similarly, in the series of simultaneous and instantaneous gasification reactions, the gasifier ends up liberating its own oxygen supply in sub-stoichiometric conditions from the biomass itself, thereby releasing more energy as gas and heat than the endothermic reactions require to sustain themselves.

Biomass energy technologies are ready for deployment from the bottom up, for communities and by communities. In this same movement, we find we will also be keeping organics out of landfills, localizing fertilizer production, tending diseased forests, and displacing fossil fuel expenditures and associated carbon release.

 

 

[Note:  To see the full tables,  select the tables, copy them and paste them into a Word or equivalent document.]

Type Fuel Gases Total EnergyYield Feedstocks Primary Applications Secondary Applications Co-Products
Anaerobic Digestion Wet and Bio-Chemical, Alive: produces 24/7 365 Biogas (60-70% Methane) @ 600 BTUs/ft3 O.17-1.76 kwhr per pound of fresh, raw feedstock Manures, food waste, ag residues, glycerin, paper, any organic with low C/N ratio Direct-Flame Loads, (cooking, water heating), Electricity and Hot Water, hydroponic/algae nutrient Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for Automobiles, Natural Gas Grid Injection, Liquid Fuels, NPK Fertilizer & Soil Conditioner, Carbon Dioxide Supply for Algae, organic “waste” xtreatment functions

 

Type Fuel Gases Total EnergyYield Feedstocks Primary Applications Secondary Applications Co-Products
Wood Chip Gasification Dry and Thermal, produces when we run it Hydrogen, Carbon Monoxide @120 BTUs/ft3 0.37-1.5 kwhr per pound of chipped and dry wood Wood chips, chipped tires & plastics, any organic dry and chipped or densified (pelletized) Electricity and Hot Water, gasifier onboard automobiles Liquid Fuels and chemicals Potentially Carbon Negative Biochar, Carbon Dioxide Supply for Algae

 

 

Nicholas Chambers is a small farmer who operates Living Arts Systems, LLC, a design, build and installation company for food and energy systems operating in southern Colorado and northern NM. He is also the Biomass Energy instructor for Santa Fe Community College’s Biofuels Center of Excellence. You can reach him at nick@livingartsystems.com.