Bursts of Energy...
Biomass Energy

Trash to Energy

Recommended grade levels: 4-6

Goal: Students will investigate how biomass, recovered from trash, can be used as an energy source.

Process skills: Collecting data, hypothesizing, making graphs, observing and predicting.

Frameworks: Matter, Universe

Materials: (per student group) plastic gloves one aluminum pie pan scissors waste paper water matches safety goggles

Teacher background information: Biomass describes all solid material of animal or vegetable origin. Plants and plant products (such as paper, wood, and peanuts) and animal products (such as manure) are examples of biomass fuels. Municipal solid waste, which is mostly cellulose, is also considered biomass. Biomass can be burned, fermented, or treated chemically to release energy.
Note: (This activity works best outside. Step # 1 should be supervised by an adult. Step #6 involves fire and should be completed outside on a paved surface!)

Student groups will:

  1. Wearing gloves, carefully rummage through their trash cans at home, looking for paper or cardboard items that are not too dirty. Students should bring these items to class.
  2. Cut the items into pieces that will fit into an aluminum pie pan.
  3. Soak the paper items in warm water until they are soggy.
  4. After layering the soggy paper in the pans, press the paper layers together to force out excess water and drain the water from the pan. They should stop adding layers when the pile has been built about one inch thick.
  5. Allow several days for the compressed mass to dry completely.
  6. Break some of the compressed mass into chunks and place them back into the aluminum pan to see if they will burn.

Burning should take place under adult supervision and out of the wind, away from the building. Safety rules should be strictly enforced. Safety goggles are highly recommended.


  1. How might this process relieve the strain on landfills?
  2. What are some problems associated with using trash for fuel?

Extensions: Have students:

  1. Research and compare the amount of heat energy produced by the compressed waste paper to other forms of biomass (com husks, branches, peanut shells, weeds, cow dung).
  2. Graph their findings.
  3. Research and report on issues related to landfills in their community and county.

Teacher resources:
Foster, Joanna. Cartoons, Cans, and Orange Peels: Where Does Your Garbage Go?
Gr. 4-6. A brief, visually appealing introduction to garbage-where it comes from and where it goes. Especially interesting is a chapter on how a materials recycling facility sorts and processes trash by using sorting machines that shake, blow, and apply magnets. Composting and methane gas recovery are described briefly.
ISBN: O-R1fi8-0707-3

Rickard, Graham. Bioenergy
Gr. 4-6. From the Alternative Energy Series, this book describes the various kinds of bioenergy, ways we are using it today, and its advantages and disadvantages.
ISBN: 0-83-6807 L0-3