The Definition of Bioenergy

A Growing Form of Renewable Energy Sources

Massive corn field against a clear sky is an inviting bioenergy source.

Enric Arcos Pellicer / EyeEm / Getty Images

Bioenergy is renewable energy created from natural, biological sources. Many natural sources, such as plants, animals, and their byproducts, can be valuable resources. Modern technology even makes landfills or waste zones potential bioenergy resources. It can be used to be a sustainable power source, providing heat, gas, and fuel. 

Because the energy contained in sources like plants is obtained from the sun through photosynthesis, it can be replenished and is considered an inexhaustible source. 

Using bioenergy has the potential to decrease our carbon footprint and improve the environment. While bioenergy uses the same amount of carbon dioxide as traditional fossil fuels, the impact can be minimized as long as the plants used are replaced. Fast-growing trees and grass help this process and are known as bioenergy feedstocks.

Where Bioenergy Comes From

Most bioenergy comes from forests, agricultural farms, and waste. The feedstocks are grown by farms specifically for their use as an energy source. Common crops include starch or sugar-based plants, like sugarcane or corn.

How It Is Created

To turn raw sources into energy, there are three processes: chemical, thermal, and biochemical. Chemical processing uses chemical agents to break down the natural source and convert it into liquid fuel. Corn ethanol, a fuel created from corn, is an example of chemical processing results. The thermal conversion uses heat to change the source into energy through combustion or gasification. A biochemical conversion uses bacteria or other organisms to convert the source, such as through composting or fermentation.

Who Uses It

Bioenergy exists at several different levels. Individuals can create bioenergy, such as by creating a compost heap out of kitchen scraps and keeping worms to produce rich fertilizer. At the other extreme are large energy corporations looking for more sustainable energy sources than oil or coal. These organizations use huge farms and facilities to provides hundreds or thousands of customers with energy.

Why It Is Important

Having the ability to produce energy through plants or other resources can lessen U.S. reliance on foreign nations for sources of energy. Bioenergy also is viewed as essential for the environment. Continued use of fossil fuels can cause significant environmental issues by producing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming or by emitting harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide which can harm the population's health.

As technology progresses, bioenergy has the potential to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions, the release of harmful gases associated with global warming and climate change. The use of forests and farms in bioenergy can help combat the harmful release of carbon dioxide and help achieve a balance.

At this time, bioenergy is not ready to replace fossil fuels. The process is too costly and uses too many resources to be practical in most areas. The large plots of land and significant amounts of water needed to be successful can be difficult for many states or countries. Additionally, agricultural resources such as land and water dedicated to producing crops related to bioenergy can limit the resources used for producing food. Still, as science continues to study this area, bioenergy could increasingly become a larger source of energy that can help improve the environment.

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Orloff, Jeffrey. "The Definition of Bioenergy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 7, 2021, Orloff, Jeffrey. (2021, August 7). The Definition of Bioenergy. Retrieved from Orloff, Jeffrey. "The Definition of Bioenergy." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 4, 2023).