Thermodynamics of energy production from biomass

Tad W. Patzek*, David Pimentel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

159 Scopus citations


With high quality petroleum running out in the next 50 years, the world governments and petrochemical industry alike are looking at biomass as a substitute refinery feedstock for liquid fuels and other bulk chemicals. New large plantations are being established in many countries, mostly in the tropics, but also in China, North America, Northern Europe, and in Russia. These industrial plantations will impact the global carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water cycles in complex ways. The purpose of this paper is to use thermodynamics to quantify a few of the many global problems created by industrial forestry and agriculture. It is assumed that a typical tree biomass-for-energy plantation is combined with an efficient local pelleting facility to produce wood pellets for overseas export. The highest biomass-to-energy conversion efficiency is afforded by an efficient electrical power plant, followed by a combination of the FISCHER-TROPSCH diesel fuel burned in a 35%-efficient car, plus electricity. Wood pellet conversion to ethanol fuel is always the worst option. It is then shown that neither a prolific acacia stand in Indonesia nor an adjacent eucalypt stand is "sustainable." The acacia stand can be made "sustainable" in a limited sense if the cumulative free energy consumption in wood drying and chipping is cut by a factor of two by increased reliance on sun-drying of raw wood. The average industrial sugarcane-for-ethanol plantation in Brazil could be "sustainable" if the cane ethanol powered a 60%-efficient fuel cell that, we show, does not exist. With some differences (ethanol distillation vs. pellet production), this sugarcane plantation performs very similarly to the acacia plantation, and is unsustainable in conjunction with efficient internal combustion engines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-364
Number of pages38
JournalCritical Reviews in Plant Sciences
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Sep 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Acacia
  • Biofuel
  • Biomass
  • Cycle
  • Ecosystem
  • Energy
  • Eucalypt
  • Exergy
  • Renewability
  • Solar
  • Sugarcane
  • Sustainability
  • Thermodynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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