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The Carbon Cycle (Woody Biomass Emphasis)

The carbon cycle begins as atmospheric carbon dioxide is captured by growing trees and converted—in the process of photosynthesis—into the complex carbohydrates that the trees need to live.

When trees die, the process of decomposition begins. During this process of decay, heat energy, water, and carbon dioxide are released back into the atmosphere. The carbon released during decomposition is reabsorbed by the growth of new trees, resulting in zero net atmospheric carbon gain.

Woody biomass utilization works within this cycle. Dead trees can clutter forest floors for years due to the relatively slow rate of decomposition, but by harvesting these biomass resources, the heat energy they contain can be captured and used. The natural process of decay is accelerated when woody biomass is burned, and the heat energy given off can be used directly as heat, or it can be used to generate electricity, or to produce steam.

Other uses of woody biomass postpone the natural process of decay. Since insects, fungi, and other microorganisms hasten the decomposition of dead trees, harvesting woody resources before the process of decay can progress will postpone the breakdown of the wood matter for many years. In this way, woody biomass can be used for purposes other than energy production—lumber, animal bedding, ground cover, etc.

When the wood matter used in biomass processes is finally burned (or is discarded and decomposes), the carbon is returned to the atmosphere as part of the natural carbon cycle. New trees absorb the reintroduced carbon, and the cycle repeats.

Are Fossil Fuels Considered Biomass?

Fossil fuels were biomass many eons ago, but the carbon they contain has been out of the carbon cycle for ages. As such, burning fossil fuels introduces new carbon into the cycle, resulting in a net gain of atmospheric carbon. Fossil fuels are therefore not considered to be biomass, nor are they categorized as renewable energy sources.