What is biomass? - Drax

What is biomass?

Everything you need to know about biomass and biomass energy

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What is biomass?

In ecological terms, biomass refers to any type of organic matter. When it comes to energy, biomass is any organic matter that can be used to generate energy, for example wood, forest residues or plant materials.

How is biomass used?  

Biomass used and combusted for energy can come in a number of different forms, ranging from compressed wood pellets – which are used in power stations that have upgraded from coal – to biogas and biofuels, a liquid fuel that can be used to replace fossil fuels in transport.

The term biomass also refers to any type of organic material used for energy in domestic settings, for example wood burned in wood stoves and wood pellets used in domestic biomass boilers.

Biomass is organic matter like wood, forest residues or plant material, that is used to generate energy.

Where does biomass come from?

Biomass can be produced from different sources including agricultural or forestry residues, dedicated energy crops or waste products such as uneaten food.

Drax Power Station uses compressed wood pellets sourced from sustainably managed working forests in the US, Canada, Europe and Brazil, and are largely made up of low-grade wood produced as a byproduct of the production and processing of higher value wood products, like lumber and furniture.

Biomass producers and users must meet a range of stringent measures for their biomass to be certified as sustainable and responsibly sourced.

Key biomass facts

Is biomass renewable?

 Biomass grown through sustainable means is classified as a renewable source of energy because of the process of its growth. As biomass comes from organic, living matter, it grows naturally, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere in the process.

It means when biomass is combusted as a source of energy – for example for heat or electricity production – the CO2 released is offset by the amount of CO2 it absorbed from the atmosphere while it was growing.

Fast facts

  • In 2019 biomass accounted for 6% of Great Britain’s electricity generation, more than 1/6 of the total generation of all renewable sources
  • There is about 550 gigatonnes of biomass carbon on Earth in total. Humans make up around 1/10,000th of that mass.
  • Modern biomass was first developed as an alternative for oil after its price spiked as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates bioenergy accounts for roughly 1/10th of the world’s total energy supply

Biomass is a renewable, sustainable form of energy used around the world.

How long has biomass been used as a source of energy?

Biomass has been used as a source of energy for as long as humans have been creating fire. Early humans using wood, plants or animal dung to make fire were all creating biomass energy.

Today biomass in the form of wood and wood products remains a widely used energy source for many countries around the world – both for domestic consumption and at grid scale through power stations, where it’s often used to replace fossil fuels with much higher lifecycle carbon emissions.

Drax Power Station has been using compressed wood pellets (a form of biomass) since 2003, when it began research and development work co-firing it with coal. It fully converted its first full generating unit to run only on compressed wood pellets in 2013, lowering the carbon footprint of the electricity it produced by more than 80% across the renewable fuel’s lifecycle. Today the power station runs mostly on sustainable biomass.

Go deeper

Read next: What is reforestation and afforestation?