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There are increasing references in popular and scientific literature to an emerging “bioeconomy.” But what is meant by this term, and what does it imply for the near and longer term future? Part of the answer is revealed by the past.

From the beginning of European settlement of North America through the beginning of the 20th century, citizens relied heavily on wood and agricultural crops to provide food, shelter, energy, transportation, clothing, and other products of all kinds. In other words, the economy was based on materials and products made from once living things (i.e. biomaterials). Agriculture yielded not only food, but flax, wool, hides, cotton, and hemp used to make clothing, canvas, cordage, and leather. Wood was the mainstay of ships, buggies and wagons (and later automobiles), homes and buildings of commerce, bridges and sidewalks, buckets and barrels, implements, utensils, newsprint and books, fencing, and more. Wood was also the primary source of energy until the late 1800s. Even ethanol, which is used as a fuel today, was produced from agricultural crops as long ago as the late 1800s.

Over time, society increasingly turned to metals for production of vehicles and ships, and to steel and concrete for construction of buildings of commerce. Steel and concrete also became materials of choice for construction of houses and apartment buildings in Europe, much of Asia, and the Middle East. Similarly, fossil-fuel-based fibers such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic replaced natural fiber in a number of applications. Plastics, derived from fossil fuels, found increasing uses beginning in the late 1920s. Energy markets became dominated by fossil fuels, and the rise of electronics was fueled by a wide array of relatively scarce and high environmental impact metals. Today, wood and non-food agricultural products continue to be used in large volumes, though plant-based materials don’t dominate commerce as they once did.

But a quiet revolution is underway. Based in part on rising environmental and social concerns linked to fossil fuel consumption and heavy reliance on non-renewable materials, development of new families of renewable, low impact and plant-based materials and products of all kinds is taking place in laboratories around the world. Some are already on the market, while others are in concept or developmental stages. Success to date suggests that such materials and products will become common in the future, in the process causing a significant shift back toward an economy based on biological materials. Although a return to near total reliance on biomaterials, as in the late 1800s, is not envisioned, the magnitude of expected developments are sufficient to inspire references to a coming bio-based economy.

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