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    Virginia Renewables - Biofuels

    The term “biomass” refers to organic materials derived from plants or animals. “Biofuels” are energy-containing fuels derived from biomass, and "bioenergy" is energy derived from biofuels. The source of biomass energy is the sun, as plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and water into the organic (carbon-chain) compounds that comprise the plant’s physical structure. When animals consume plant material, they convert plant biomass into their own bodily tissue and into the metabolic energy necessary to gather food, procreate, and conduct other activities necessary for survival.

    Humans can use biomass to produce energy for economically valued purposes. The vast majority of biomass energy is derived from plant material, which can be burned directly or converted into liquid or gaseous fuels. (For more information, see According to the US Department of Energy, bioenergy is responsible for approximately 3 percent of US primary energy production.

    Direct Use

    In Virginia, the majority of bioenergy usage occurs as direct combustion of plant products, primarily wood fuels. Several state-operated facilities burn wood residue so that they can save on heating costs. Several in-state industrial facilities burn wood residue for space heating, process heat, and electrical generation; most of this wood-derived fuel is waste from other industrial processes that would require disposal if not used as a source of energy. Many homeowners use biomass energy in wood stoves to save home-heating costs, especially in the state's forested western areas.

    Fuel Conversion

    Some conversion of biomass to more concentrated energy sources also occurs. For example, methane gas is produced from the below-ground decomposition of organic wastes (such as discarded food waste) and extracted from landfills throughout the state. Methane (CH4) is the primary molecular component of natural gas. Because landfill gases generally do not meet the energy-content and purity standards for commercially distributed natural gas, they are often used as a fuel directly by nearby public or industrial facilities.

    Liquid fuels can also be manufactured from biomass products. For example, ethanol derived from corn is used a gasoline additive throughout the nation.

    Research on Future Biomass Uses

    Future advancements in technologies for using biomass energy are possible. For example, even today, alternative energy enthusiasts are able to convert diesel-powered automobiles to run on fuels derived from vegetable oils. At the national level, scientists are working to develop plants that can produce oils with energy content and properties more closely adapted to the requirements of advanced diesel engines. These plant varieties are also being developed in hopes that they can thrive on low-productivity soils that are now not useful for agricultural production.

    Research is being conducted throughout the world, including Virginia universities, on the development of more efficient systems for converting the sun’s energy to useful energy products through photosynthesis and conversion of plant-based products. For example, scientists at Virginia Tech’s Bio-based Materials/Recycling Center are investigating the use of processed biomass products to replace petroleum as a feedstock for manufacturing certain products currently used to produce plastics.


    Renewable Electric Power Industry Net Summer Capability

    Renewable Non-utility Net Summer Capability at Generating Facilities by Energy Source

    Total Renewable Net Generation 1990-2003

    Gross Renewable Generation at Non-Utility Generating Facilities by Energy Source

    Grid-Connected Electrical Generation Capacity Bioenergy

    Existing Units by Fuel and Nameplate Capacity

    Residue at primary wood-using plants used as Fuel by species group, and type of residue

    Wood Residues used as Fuel, by Manufacturer Type, by End Consumer, 1996


    Selected Internet Links

    Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research
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