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Biomass, Waste-to-Energy, Waste Methane and Biofuels from Algae, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Biomass energy is the term describing the conversion of certain types of organic material into usable energy, either by burning it directly or by harvesting combustible gases or liquids.  In some cases, it can be referred to as “waste-to-energy,” because a common application is the burning of a city’s garbage or an industrial plant’s production scrap, such as wood chips or sawdust.  Agricultural residues, such as rice straw, nutshells or wheat straw, are also useful as biomass fuels.  Waste-to-energy plants have been in use in the U.S. for decades, frequently operating in tandem.  A significant advantage of waste-to-energy is the fact that it reduces the amount of material placed in overburdened landfills.  The production of ethanol or biodiesel is another way to utilize biomass to create fuel.
Today, several factors are creating heightened interest in waste-to-energy.  One of the most important aspects of generating electricity in this manner is the fact that burning garbage takes up a lot less space than compacting it in a landfill.  Many municipalities are faced with severe restraints and high costs in their landfill operations.  Also, industrial sites are extremely interested in capturing their on-site waste and excess heat as a way of generating electricity, sometimes referred to as co-generation.  In comparing landfill gas harvesting and waste incineration, a recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Energy Information Administration and the DOE found incineration to be far more efficient.  Incineration produces 590 kilowatt-hours of electricity per ton of waste compared to the 65 kilowatt-hours produced from landfill gas.
Quantities of waste, such as sewage, manure heaps at feedlots and the garbage filling landfills, create large amounts of methane gas as they decompose.  One form of biomass energy generation that utilizes this phenomenon has been affectionately named “cow power.”  In this method of energy production, cow manure is placed in a holding tank, where it is heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  This allows naturally occurring bacteria to break down the material, releasing methane, which is collected and burned in a generator.  By this method, the manure from one cow can produce about 1,200 kilowatt-hours per year, meaning ten cows can power an average American house.  Not only can cow power produce electricity, it can also be used to produce high quality (and noticeably less smelly) fertilizer.
In late 2019, Dominion Energy, Inc. and Smithfield Foods announced plans to increase their joint venture to $500 million to build anaerobic digesters across the U.S.  Facilities are planned for Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina and California.  By 2029, the projects collectively are expected to produce approximately 5 billion cubic feet of gas per year.
A leading waste disposal firm, Waste Management, Inc., is capitalizing on waste methane at a handful of the numerous landfills that it operates.  For example, working with energy management firm Ameresco, it is providing waste methane energy to a BMW automobile plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina via a pipeline to a landfill ten miles away.  Of the approximately 1,900 landfills in the U.S., about 636 collect methane gas for energy use according to the EPA.
Both bioethanol and biodiesel are considered to be biomass energy sources.  Many types of organic fats are currently used worldwide to make biodiesel, including soybean oil, grapeseed oil (the same oil that is commonly sold as canola), palm oil and beef tallow.  Unfortunately, the refining of biodiesel is not a sure way to profits.  Costs of capital investment are high, and feedstocks, particularly vegetable oils, can be extremely expensive.
From an environmental impact point-of-view, salvaging chicken fat from a meat packing plant to use in fuels may be reasonably efficient.  However, dramatically altering the usage of vast swaths of land to grow plants, such as corn, for fuel is another matter.  Land displacement for biofuel use has turned into a global problem and a huge controversy.  Farmers from the Americas to Brazil to Indonesia have been converting land that was previously used for food agriculture into acreage used for biofuel plant growth.  At the same time, farmers elsewhere have been incentivized by high demand in the marketplace to destroy rain forest, woodlands or open plains in order to plant food crops to take up the slack in the market, or to plant high-value plants for biodiesel or bioethanol feedstock.
When woodlands or prairies are cleared and burned to make way for crops, vast amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere.  Among the biggest culprits are farmers clearing rain forest in Indonesia in order to plant palms for the harvesting of palm oil for biodiesel, and those clearing rain forest in Brazil for planting of soy for biodiesel.  (Clearing grassland in the U.S. in order to plant corn for bioethanol is another problem.)  Studies found that these activities create immense carbon emission problems, which may be far in excess of any carbon saved over the short term by burning a plant-based fuel as opposed to a petroleum-based fuel in cars and trucks. 
In June 2022, Chevron completed the acquisition of Renewable Energy Group, a biomass company with 11 refineries that source predominantly from waste products such as used cooking oil or tallow.  Chevron spent $3.15 billion to buy the company and plans to acquire additional renewable energy producers.
Landfills are attracting growing attention as potential natural gas producers.  As of 2022, Project Assai, a major trash-fed gas plant operated by Archaea Energy, Inc. in Pennsylvania, was producing natural gas at a rate capable of fueling more than 65,000 homes daily.  Landfill operator Waste Management, Inc. is spending $825 million on gas projects at its properties.  NextEra Energy, Inc., a renewable power company, is investing $1.1 billion for a collection of landfill facilities.

SPOTLIGHT:  FastOx Pathfinder
Sierra Energy ( has tested a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder that already has a $3 million contract from the U.S. Defense Department.  The system is based on a modified blast furnace that heats almost any kind of trash to extreme temperatures without combustion.  The resulting materials include hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be utilized for making ethanol or diesel fuel or can be burned for electricity.

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