Biomass Energy Basics

Biomass energy, or "bioenergy," is the energy from plants and plant-derived materials.

Biomass has been in use since people first began burning wood to cook food and keep warm. Wood is still the largest biomass energy resource today. Other sources include food crops, grassy and woody plants, residues from agriculture or forestry, oil-rich algae, and the organic component of municipal and industrial wastes. Even the fumes from landfills (which contain methane, the main component in natural gas) can be used as a biomass energy source.

Biomass can be used for fuels, power production, and products that would otherwise be made from fossil fuels.

NREL's vision is to develop technology for biorefineries that will convert biomass into a range of valuable fuels, chemicals, materials, and products—much like oil refineries and petrochemical plants do.

Bioenergy Technologies


Biofuels are transportation fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, created by converting biomass into liquid fuels to meet transportation needs. Learn more about biofuels.


Biopower technologies convert renewable biomass fuels into heat and electricity using one of three processes: burning, bacterial decay, and conversion to gas/liquid fuel.


In addition to electricity and fuels, biomass can also be converted into chemicals for making plastics and other products that typically are made from petroleum.

Benefits of Biomass

Biomass can provide an array of benefits.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction

The use of biomass energy has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Burning biomass releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning fossil fuels. However, fossil fuels release carbon dioxide captured by photosynthesis millions of years ago—an essentially "new" greenhouse gas. Biomass, on the other hand, releases carbon dioxide that is largely balanced by the carbon dioxide captured in its own growth (depending how much energy was used to grow, harvest, and process the fuel). However, studies have found that clearing forests to grow biomass results in a carbon penalty that takes decades to recoup, so it is best if biomass is grown on previously cleared land, such as under-utilized farmland.

Foreign Oil Dependence Reduction

The use of biomass can reduce dependence on foreign oil because biofuels are the only renewable liquid transportation fuels available.

U.S. Agricultural and Forest Product Industry Support

Biomass energy supports U.S. agricultural and forest-product industries. The main biomass feedstocks for power are paper mill residue, lumber mill scrap, and municipal waste. For biomass fuels, the most common feedstocks used today are corn grain (for ethanol) and soybeans (for biodiesel). In the near future—and with NREL-developed technology—agricultural residues such as corn stover (the stalks, leaves, and husks of the plant) and wheat straw will also be used. Long-term plans include growing and using dedicated energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses, and algae. These feedstocks can grow sustainably on land that will not support intensive food crops.

Additional Resources

For more information, visit NREL's Bioenergy Research site or the following resources:

Glossary of Biomass Terms

Energy Kids Biomass Basics
U.S. Energy Information Administration Energy Kids

Bioenergy Basics
U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy