An Eco-sustainable World

Biomass and Biodiversity

Biomasse e Biodiversità

Biomass and Biodiversity

Like all new things that arrive on the horizon of our knowledge, the writings on biomass suffer from fashions, imperfections and “points of view” that still have to face the phase of close examination or, if we want, of semantic purification.
The interest which has sprung up and continues to develop around biomass is logically influenced by energy, economic, technical and ethical aspects.
The more we enter into the meanders of Sustainable Development the more we realise that the concepts that are at the base of this new vision of Social Development are based upon the simple consideration that Life needs Energy to be able to exist and develop and that this source of Energy has to remain constant and available for the longest period possible. The availability of energy sources is therefore the departure point of being able to guarantee that future generations can satisfy their own needs (Brundtland Report 1987).
But energy sources are not all equal and the principles of thermodynamics teach us to distinguish between energy sources and thermodynamic machines with different yield.
The use of an energy source is possible thanks to a thermodynamic machine, that is, to a system that is able to have an input of one form of energy and an output of a different energy form. The final result will be to have performed a useful job for the system with an efficiency of transformation that we shall call yield. The part which is not transformed will be the part defined as entropy, which is a function of the irreversibility (or, if you want, disorder) of the system.
Up to this point everything is well; these are the elements that we learned at school, only that when these concepts are transferred to the ecosystem, things become complicated or, it would be better to say, complex. By comparing the disciplines of Scientists like Leon Brillouin, on negaentropy, Erwin Schroedinger on the theory that organisms feed on negative energy and on Ilya Prigogine, relative to the dissipative Structures of Energy, it has been seen that the ecosystem is in a state of totopotentiality, and for a given environment, it is the most efficient thermodynamic machine.

This conclusion * has also been reached by comparing the work that Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot had already completed and published in 1824 and his subsequent theoretical speculations.
Now, recalling the principles of thermodynamics, we realize that Biological Systems have become complex in order to raise the maximum possible point of energy yield that derives from the use of solar energy and of energy contained on our planet.
In biological systems every single organism behaves as a thermodynamic machine. Every single thermodynamic machine of the biological system not only uses some solar energy and terrestrial energy, but also the “waste products” of other organisms working in short as a “Single Living Organism.”
What was not understood until today (from Politics to Research) is that every organism is useful for the service of others. Removing one goes to the decrement of the operation of the whole system and the more pieces I lose, the more my Ecosystem works badly.
In short: the value of entropy, which in biological thermodynamic systems assumes determined values, increases as the system degrades (loses pieces) and continues growing to the detriment of the general yield of our biological machine. To use a term which is unfortunately known in our cities, a degraded ecosystem uses the energy at its disposal badly and therefore pollutes more. The increasing value of entropy represents for all thermodynamic systems a scale for measuring pollution and energy inefficiency.
Returning to the title of this article, it seems all too evident that the writings on the efficiency of the use of biomass, on the production of energy, all too frequently lack the parameters of total energy efficiency. Referring to the yield from biomass, references are made to various parameters but very rarely is a complete evaluation made, and when it is it is not done in an orthodox way.
Scientific research has series difficulty in creating parameters for the assessment of the energy of the ecosystem and the consultable bibliography does not help.
The problem is that, in the evaluation of the efficiency of the production of energy from biomass, the patrimonial aspect of energy is not kept in mind.
An Ecosystem that has reached totopotentiality has employed a long period, and all this time was necessary to accumulate energy in the form of material energy. In short, the system has become complex through biodiversity, which is simply the transformation over a long period of time of the energy that has been accumulated. The relativistic vision of Einstein comes towards us making us understand that there exists a perfect equivalence between Energy and Matter, and the studies of Ilya Prigogine enlighten us on the nature and function of biodiversity as a fundamental asset for the working of the ecosystemic thermodynamic machine . Unfortunately, in the studies of feasibility and in the assessments that we see around this methodological approach is still missing, which is no small thing.
To give an absurd example: if today I wanted to obtain a production of energy from biomass, admitted that a balance of energy yield has been carried out in the smallest details (for example from cogeneration) and I used a great extension in monoculture, even if I were to be reassured by this type of balance, I would have committed an impoverishment of the ecosystem with the consequent lowering of the thermodynamic efficiency of the System. An energy balance that does not keep in mind the patrimonial aspects (Biodiversity and Ecosystem), as happens in Economics, gives a partial budget and, for this reason, an inaccurate one.

Just as the aspects of biodiversification will have to be faced by modern agriculture, it is equally inadmissible and unthinkable (from a scientific and therefore technical point of view) to obtain energy from biomass from systems with low biodiversity.
This is the same as saying the following:
• For “firms” to produce energy from biomass, these must be based upon complex systems, that is, on agricultural systems that emulate most the potential of the vegetation of the site;
• The machines that transform the energy from this production will have to be polyfunctional, that is, to be able to make the best use of the production and of the waste or by-products;
• The energy balance has to keep in mind of two aspects: 1 – the traditional one, that is, the yield of the transformation of the biomass we start from into other forms of energy; 2 – the patrimonial one, that is, of an energy coefficient between the potential and real biodiversity of the site.
Juridical norms, techniques and applications will have to draw substantial leads from it.

Guido Bissanti

* “Biodiversity and Power of Matter”
Dr. Agr. Guido Bissanti – Contribution on the Theme – Biodiversity and Bioethics – C.N.R. – National Council for Research – January 16th 2008.