The terms biomass and bioenergy are prevalent words in a modern world looking for clean energy. In fact, they are accountable for 98% of renewable energy generation (60% – wood derivatives, 32% – biofuels, 7% – biomass waste.) Likely, most people reading this have probably come across the terms at least once or twice before. Despite the popularity of these terms, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation surrounding them. Many are under the impression that biomass and bioenergy are a modern form of energy and that the biomass energy transition is something new. It could not be further from the truth. The history of biomass dates back to humankind’s roots. We are going to break down what biomass is and have a short review of its history.

What is Biomass?

The term biomass refers to living or recently dead organisms and any byproducts of those organisms – plant or animal. In a strict sense, the term biomass encompasses all living things. In the context of biomass energy, it refers to the crops, residues, and other forms of biological materials that can be used to substitute fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass has gained a lot of traction in recent years due to its ability for renewable electricity generation, green energy production, biofuels, and thermal energy. Plants, a form of living biomass, are the most common type of biomass that exists. They take in carbon dioxide as they grow and release it when they are used for energy. This carbon cycle is why many consider biomass a carbon-neutral (or close to a carbon-neutral) form of energy. The lower release of greenhouse gas emissions translates to fewer environmental impacts on climate change and global warming.

Looking at the History of Biomass

Biomass predates us. There is a lot of evidence that supports the claims that we have utilized biomass as an energy supply between 230,000 to 1.5 million years ago. We are going to look at some biomass milestones throughout history.

Burning Biomass in Ancient Times – Fire

Biomass is by no means a form of alternative energy that has been discovered in recent years. In fact, biomass was around long before people inhabited earth. As humans populated the world, they started utilizing biomass for energy. This means that biomass utilization is almost as old as humans themselves. The first form of biomass as an energy source is the use of fire. Biomass is among the most straightforward renewable energy sources of combustible carbon globally, and we used it to generate heat and cook food. From this point on, we developed a fascination with what has come to be known as bioenergy.

Combustion was and remained the leading form of converting biomass to energy. This is why biomass is still massively used in developing countries that do not have the bioenergy generating systems that more developed countries utilize to create alternate energy.

The History of Biomass Energy Changed in the 1800s

Humanity initially focused on utilizing biomass for cooking and heating. Around the 19th century, we started looking at more modern uses of biomass materials.


While fire is the oldest example of bioenergy in use, ethanol can be seen as the next big step in utilizing carbon for energy. Ethanol has been around for a very long time. Humanity had discovered and used the process of fermentation long before civilizations were developed. Despite this, there is no clear evidence of people distilling alcohol until twelfth-century Italy. Shortly after people started making alcohol in the 1100s, ethanol was quickly used for cooking and lighting. People began using ethanol to create more power.

Ethanol was a very popular renewable source of energy for its simplicity and availability. It was derived from grains, which meant that the feedstock was plentiful, and all you needed was a still to produce ethanol. It was even the substance, along with turpentine, used to power the first engine in 1826. Ethanol fuel continued to be a popular form of fuel up until the 1890s.

Vegetable and Fish Oil

As people started exploring ethanol’s possibilities as an alternative energy source, they also looked into using vegetable and fish oil for heating and lighting. Many civilizations used oils to generate heat and light. Even ancient cultures like Egyptians and Sumerians are believed to have burnt animal and vegetable oils. These oils were utilized later in history as well. As populations grew, a new industry around lighting and heating emerged. People got more innovative and used the resources around them to produce light and energy. Examples include refined turpentine from pine trees, alcohols (especially wood alcohol – methanol), and a mixture of the two, the primary fuel before petroleum.

Pine Sap (Naval Stores) – Turpentine

Pine sap was a precious renewable resource from the 1700s to the 1960s. Before oil, pine sap was the resource nations competed for. In its raw form, pine sap was used in the ship-making process. When distilled, the sap made several extremely valuable chemicals at the time – the most important of these being turpentine. Turpentine had multiple uses, but its most important use as an alternative energy source was lamp oil.

The Arrival of Oil

While it might feel like oil was around forever, we have only been refining and using it for about 150 years. Similar to ethanol and turpentine, the demand for energy brought about a significant development of oil production. It is important to note that petroleum was not useful until we discovered how to refine it into its pieces. Several steam and internal combustion engines ran on a broad spectrum of refined fuels. All of these were defeated by Rudolf Diesel when he created the diesel engine.

Transportation Brings Biomass Energy Back to Life

A significant milestone in bioenergy history was the early 1900s when biomass fuel became popular again. Due to a boom in the automotive industry and the wars, Scarce resources led to carmakers returning to bioenergy. The most famous example of this is Henry Ford, who turned to liquid biofuel and ethanol to power his vehicles. This became especially prevalent during the first World War when fossil fuels became scarce. The hardships and challenges of the time brought back a considerable demand for ethanol.

Crude oil and Fossil Fuels Eclipsed Bioenergy

The renewable energy projects that were emerging at the time had a lot of potential. However, commercialization and large-scale mining brought coal and crude oil to the forefront of the energy scene. They saturated the market and got prices down. In addition to that, these nonrenewable fuels proved to be very efficient and practical for everyday use. This brought about the reduction of bioenergy use and the rise of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels became the fuel of choice in most countries and held the top position of energy consumption until the 1970s.

Biomass Energy in the Late 20th Century

The geopolitical conflict that was felt in the 1970s brought about a fuel crisis. As a result of this, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reduced oil exports. This caught the attention of governments and the academic world. Many started looking into developing more renewable energy sources. This movement brought about many green energy improvements in solar panel power, geothermal power plants, offshore wind farms, and hydroelectric power. During this period, scientists took a systematic approach to energy and coined the term biomass.

As time went on, the importance of bioenergy got linked to issues like fossil fuel pollution. Some growing environmental concerns mark this period of biomass history. Scientists turned their attention to researching climate change and fossil fuel reduction.

Biomass in the Modern World

As things currently stand, modern biomass energy production is a vital source of renewable energy. In fact, it has gone far beyond wind energy and solar energy in the search for renewables. It is the leading source of alternative energy. Biomass feedstock is processed and converted to energy in a number of different ways. While burning woody biomass (forest biomass materials, wood pellets, etc.) remains the most popular way we use this renewable energy resource, there have been massive strides in the field of biomass energy. Innovation has brought us energy crops that are mass-produced and are converted into biofuel and biogas, and landfills that use anaerobic digestion to convert biomass into biogas for everyday use.

Governments worldwide have embraced the green movement and are putting measures and protocols in place to raise awareness and ensure there is a lot more green energy generated. As we move forward, it is expected that the field of biomass renewable energy technology grows. Biomass is predicted to play a vital role in future energy-efficient power generation. Whether it produces electricity, heat, or fuel for transport, its carbon-neutrality carries many potentials. Renewable energy, be it in the form of solar power, geothermal energy, hydroelectric power, wind turbine energy, or biomass is here to stay.

Biomass is an important renewable energy source in the modern world. As it becomes a more viable and popular energy solution, biorefineries, processing plants, and businesses need to have systems that ensure proper handling and production. Cablevey Conveyors offers its expertise in handling solid biomass, as well as flake, powder, and wet forms. Our range of tubular conveyor systems provide reliable, cost-effective, low wastage and safe biomass material conveying that can help you keep processes clean, safe, and quiet while ensuring efficient, high-speed, and high volume production.