Bio-energy is not a new idea. The first deliberate use of bio-energy occurred when prehistoric peoples discovered how to use fire to keep warm. The use of fire for heating and later for cooking, pottery making, and to provide light goes back at least 200,000 years. In the United States, wood was a principal fuel for heating and cooking as recently as 1900. Thereafter, coal, oil, and natural gas became dominant fuels. However, the oil embargo of the early 1970s resulted in marked growth of wood consumption for fuel, with volumes consumed for that purpose briefly rising to near the levels of 1900. Worldwide, the primary use of wood today is still as a fuel for heating and cooking. In other regions where wood is scarce, animal dung – another biomaterial – has long been used as a fuel.
After decades of debate about how long the age of petroleum abundance might last, it now appears that the year of peak petroleum production worldwide may be in sight. With the peak now likely to occur within one to three decades, complacency is beginning to be replaced by a sense of urgency. Alternative fuels and energy sources will soon be needed. So, too will alternative sources of chemicals and industrial feedstock now provided as by-products from liquid fuels production.
Biomaterials are one potential source of energy and chemicals. In a period in which a great deal of attention has been focused on development of cost-effective means of capturing and using solar energy, bio-materials as a source of energy have, until fairly recently, remained below the radar of policy-makers. However, biomass produced by plants through solar-energy-driven photosynthesis and subsequent growth processes has the potential to provide significant quantities of energy, as well as a wide array of chemical compounds useful to industry. It appears that a biorevolution – as long predicted by Dr. David Morris of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance (http://www.ilsr.org) – may soon be at hand as momentum builds for largescale bio-energy development.