Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


Few can argue that energy is the basis of modem, urban life on this planet. The evolution of industrial civilization paralleled the increasing use of energy resources. After millennia of using wood, more efficient and convenient charcoal became the energy form of choice during the Middle Ages. Energy utilization took a giant leap forward when coal and coke began to fuel the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution. The powerful steam engines depended upon copious supplies of readily available fuel and coal ultimately became the primary source of industrial energy for the remainder of the 19th Century.

Although petroleum had been known for centuries and had been used for a wide range of purposes including medicine, commercial production did not begin until 1859. The original application for petroleum-based products was primarily lighting, but the convenience of an easily pumpable fuel quickly stimulated the development of the internal combustion engine. By 1892, small gasoline engines, powerful enough to run road vehicles had been invented. The 'age of the automobile' had begun and oil soon replaced coal as the dominant source of energy. Although the commercial potential of fossil fuels was known at that time, the extent to which we would become so dependent upon them was not.

This century has seen the world become a willing captive to an unsustainable future. The economically developed world is addicted to high energy consumption and global economic development will be reflected by the ever-expanding use of fossil fuels. The predicted growth in world population, supposedly peaking somewhere between 8 to 10 billion people will become a critical issue as the less developed countries of the world develop their economies and strive to enjoy their full and fair measure of the biosphere's renewable and non-renewable resources.

Since oil and coal are extracted from earth sources, supplies are finite and there are considerable concerns over the extent of remaining reserves. Far more significant for the quality of our life on this planet are the environmental problems associated with oil and coal utilization. Severe atmospheric pollution, acid rain and oil spills have defiled the world we live in to an unspeakable extent. Of even greater concern is the ceaseless buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the potential warming trend associated with the Greenhouse effect. However, despite the dual oil price shocks of 1973 and 1980, total CO2 emissions into the atmosphere increased by more than 40% in the two decades between 1970 and 1990. It is a pattern we seem incapable of controlling.

The struggle we face in the future will not be characterized by a single battle or a focused apocalyptic event. If we continue with our current lifestyle, we will experience a slow protracted diminution of quality of life. In how many capitals cities of the world today do we see traffic police wearing masks to protect them from pollution? How many millions of new cases of respiratory disease are due to an atmosphere increasingly degraded by automobile exhausts and industrial emissions?

It is clear that the continued utilization of fossil fuels as a dominant energy source is not consistent with the long-term sustainability of our environment. Other practical forms of commercial industrial energy must be developed and in particular, sources that are renewable and pose the minimum risk to our environment. It was for the purpose of encouraging this concept and widely disseminating some of the more recent development sin this field that FAO requested Professor Miyamoto of Osaka University to compile the following Bulletin on Renewable Biological Systems for Alternative Sustainable Energy Production. Together with his colleagues. Professor Miyamoto has put together a most interesting text which I am certain readers will enjoy. It covers the basic concepts and limitations of renewable biological energy systems and goes on to provide an inspiring vision of their future potential. It is hoped that this Bulletin will stimulate scientists and researchers around the world to focus additional effort in this very important field. As with all Bulletins of this type, we seek the comments of readers in order to improve future editions of this work.

Morton Satin
Agro-Industries and Post-harvest Management Service
Agricultural Support Systems Division

Comments and inquiries should be addressed to:

The Chief
Agro-Industries and Post-harvest Management Service
Agricultural Support Systems Division
FAO of the United Nations
Via delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, Italy

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page