By Mary O’Callaghan

In 300 BC, the Syrian city of Antioch had public street lighting fuelled by olive oil.

At the 1900 World Fair in Paris, German inventor Rudolph Diesel demonstrated his engine, which ran on peanut oil.

In 2013, I spent most of my work time designing and developing Biomass Producer, a portal about bioenergy (energy from plant material) for people in Australia’s primary industries.

Australia lags behind many countries in using bioenergy as an alternative to fossil-fuel-based energy.

I’ve been doing my bit during winter, apparently—burning wood for heat is one of the two most used forms of bioenergy in Australia.

About 4,000,000 tonnes of firewood are burned every year in Australia. Are you as astonished as me by this?

Using sugarcane waste—bagasse—to create steam is the other most used form of bioenergy in Australia. The steam is used to power the sugar mills.

Our sugar industry has used bagasse to meet its electricity and heat requirements for more than 100 years. More astonishment. Hooray!

Bioenergy seems like a great way to make use of agricultural and forestry waste/residue, especially if you currently have to pay to dispose of it. People are creating energy from a diverse range of ‘waste’ material—macadamia nut shells, sawdust and poultry litter are just a few.

Crops can also be grown specifically for generating energy. Growing energy crops does not have to be at the expense of food and fibre.

Energy crops described on the website Biomass Producer

Some of the energy crops described on the bioenergy portal: Biomass Producer

Agave, which can be used to produce ethanol (not just tequila), can be grown on marginal land in arid and semi-arid regions where food crops would not survive. How does it survive? By using a special type of photosynthesis, known as CAM—or crassulacean acid metabolism—photosynthesis. 

With CAM photosynthesis, the leaf pores (stomata) remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, opening only in the dark of night to collect carbon dioxide.

By keeping its stomata closed during the day, it loses less water.

As I write this, Australia is experiencing extreme temperatures (mid-40s Celsius) in many parts of the country. If only we could keep our stomata closed during the day instead of turning on our air-con.

Source consulted: Chapter 12 ‘Bioenergy’ of the book Photosynthesis by Daniel Tan and Jeffrey Amthor, University of Sydney

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