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10.1: The History of Biofuels

  • Page ID
    85154
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    Humans started using biofuels many tens thousand years ago – twigs, kindlings, and larger pieces of wood for roasting their foods and for heating their caves. An important observation of ancient people was that clay kept for a prolonged time in fire changes into a solid – it led to a real revolution, opened the era of pottery about 26,000 BCE. Ceramic vessels added new applications for biofuels. For instance, a pot filled with vegetable or animal fat, with a wick inserted, was an early ancestor of toady’s lamps.

    clipboard_e56adb01cb00ae3922732c9c603d45687.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Early pottery oil lamp (source: Wikimedia Commons)

    Until the 18th century when people started mining coal, firewood was essentially the only fuel used for heating homes. Whale oil was used in lamps until it was replaced by kerosene in the second half of 19th century. Before the end of that century American steam locomotives used firewood as fuel.

    clipboard_ee175b49152471565ac7996338207b547.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Copy and Paste Caption here. (Copyright; author via source)

    Do you know why the old American locomotives carried a big funnel-shaped smokestack? European locomotives from the same period had much smaller smokestacks.

    The answer is: because European locomotives were running on coal, not on firewood. Burning firewood produces large sparks and embers, sometimes they are flaming pieces of wood! When American trains were crossing praeries in the dry season, such sparks could give rise to catastrophic fires. Inside the funny-looking smokestacks there were devices called spark arrestors which did not let the sparks to get through. Burning coal produces sparks, too – but not as large as those from firewood. In European locomotives the smokestacks were compact and hidden inside the locomotive’s belly.

    In the 20th century simple biofuels like firewood were “running out of favor” they were used mostly in leisure activities, e.g., for barbecuing, for having a good “family time” at a fireplace, etc.


    10.1: The History of Biofuels is shared under a CC BY 1.3 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Giebultowicz.

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