For over two centuries, humans have made increasingly more fuels, chemicals, materials, and other goods from fossil sources: petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Now, in many regions of the world, that trend is peaking and beginning to reverse itself. The upcoming decades will witness a continuing, worldwide shift away from near total dependence on fossil raw materials and move toward the development of a "bioeconomy," in which plant-based feedstocks become the sources of fuels, chemicals, and many manufactured goods. In this conceptualization, the biorefinery plays an important role. The technology necessary to achieve a functioning bioeconomy resides in the establishment of a biorefinery. A biorefinery is a large, highly integrated processing facility that captures value from every bit of plant biomass. Production must meet three requirements to be sustainable: it must be economically viable, environmentally sound, and beneficial to society. Very roughly speaking, the bioeconomy consists of two related elements: biomass production and biomass processing to create industrial products that are desired by consumers from the existing land base.
The scope of the change to be created by this emerging bioeconomy is breathtaking: we are transforming from an oil-oriented, nonrenewable economy to a bio-based, renewable economy. Worldwide, trillions of dollars of new wealth will be generated, millions of new jobs created, and society, perhaps especially rural society, will be transformed. This change will profoundly affect all sectors of the global economy, but most profoundly in the land-based industries around agriculture and forestry.
The drive to transform to a bioeconomy is the result of many strategic international and national issues including:
• the historical unsustainable global appetite for fossil fuels driven by economic expansion;
• concerns about GHG levels rising because of fossil energy use;
• the desire for greater economic opportunities, particularly in rural areas;
• the drive to attach value to ecosystem services;
• the stagnation of economic development in poor countries with no oil;
• emergent public demands for industry to reduce carbon emissions.
These trends are expected to continue in the foreseeable future. Many reports have outlined the economic potential of the bioeconomy. In principle, bio-products can take the place of all carbon-based fuels, chemicals, materials, electrical power, and many pharmaceutical compounds, while continuing to provide all animal feeds. In the U.S., the total dollar value of these products is approximately $3 trillion per year.
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