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Bioethanol: Fuel of the Future


April 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Considering the increasing interest in cellulose ethanol, it is time to add a new dimension to ethanol production embodying both the forest and agriculture industries….

Considering the increasing interest in cellulose ethanol, it is time to add a new dimension to ethanol production embodying both the forest and agriculture industries.

Close analysis of the current production and future expansion of ethanol production in the U.S., Brazil and world-wide, reveals that the generation of ethanol can hardly be identified as a “trend” anymore: it is a well-defined and planned expansion program. This program can be illustrated by some examples. Although there is no difference between ethanol and bioethanol (it is the same chemical), bioethanol is made from biomass (cellulose) sources, whereas ethanol is of grain or sugarcane juice origin. The world ethanol production in 2004 was 10,770 million gallons/yr (40.765 billion L/yr) and it was in excess of 11,500 million gallons (43.53 billion L/yr) in 2005. By comparison, the entire Canadian fuel consumption is about 34 billion L/yr (nine billion gallons/yr), whereas its ethanol production is a mere 350 million L/yr currently, but is expected to grow to 750 million L/yr (198.2 million gallons/yr) by 2008. Currently, more than 33 countries produce ethanol in excess of three million gallons/yr (11.5 million L/yr) capacity, mostly made from grains and sugarcane juice.

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U.S. ethanol production is expected to grow from 4.25 billion gallons/yr (16 billion L/yr) in 2005 to 7.5 billion gallons/yr (28.39 L/yr) by 2013.

The correct interpretation of the “trend” underscores the seriousness and gravity of the impending fossil fuel depletion (peak oil) expected to occur within the next 30 years. Thereby, the ultimate viability of the ethanol industry must be judged not by its history, but by its future vital importance, not as an environmental movement to reduce global warming, but rather as a means of long-term energy security for the largely over-populated humanity’s survival on this planet. The forest and pulping industry would be alerted and guided in the right direction on this important issue and business opportunity. This is no longer wishful thinking as explained below.

Indeed, the agricultural ethanol industry has gone nearly totally bankrupt three times during the past 30 years (since the OPEC oil embargo on the U.S. in 1973). Neither is it the first time that Brazilian ethanol production reached 12 billion L/yr (the largest in the world today) and has been curtailed to less than 50% of its capacity because its ethanol was not competitive on world energy markets, in spite of the government subsidy when the oil price dropped below $30/barrel in 1982, 1989 and again in 2000. The U.S. corn ethanol industry shows similar price sensitivity, in spite of the 54 c/gallon (12.4 c/L) tax subsidy available on grain ethanol. Therefore, it is feared, the ambitious growth of the grain ethanol industry can be interrupted at any time, once the oil industry gets around to lowering the price of oil below $40/barrel (bbl) again.

But this time around, a drop in the oil price may not be sufficient to halt further growth of the ethanol industry. Future growth, at least in the U.S. and to some extent in Brazil, is no longer predicated on the use of expensive corn ($80/T). In fact, if the proposed bipartisan new energy bill survives the current debate on Capitol Hill in the U.S., suddenly cellulose (biomass) ethanol (bioethanol) comes into the foreground through the recognition that fermentable sugar made from biomass is cheaper, provides equal or better crop yields (4 vs. 25 T/ha/yr), its production is less constrained by soil quality and that pound-for-pound biomass can produce as much ethanol as is possible from grains. The currently identified biomass waste sources in the U.S. (1.3 billion T/yr of agricultural and forest residues, MSW etc.) in fact can displace 100% of the U.S. automotive fuel consumption of 450 billion L/yr (119 billion gallons/yr) and avoid the hostile negative energy efficiency (energy produced/energy consumed) debate levied against the grain ethanol industry. At this point in time, the renewable fuel standard (RFS, U.S. Energy Bill, August, 2005) will guarantee a market for the increasing ethanol volume directed to the fuel markets by virtue of mandating 10 % ethanol in all U.S. gasoline by 2013, irrespective of the prevailing oil price at the time. Indeed, there is no better tool to encourage transition from fossil to renewable fuels, than unilateral government regulation, which even oil companies will have to adhere to.

The U.S. government is undergoing a fundamental change in its preference of fuel sourcing, primarily due to the public concern for foreign fossil energy dependence and inability of the government to regulate the disruptive effects of market-driven, artificially high fossil energy pricing on the economy. The U.S. depends on 59% of its oil consumption of 20 million bbl/day on imports from some not-so-friendly nations. It is now realized that the oil import uncertainties can threaten not only national security, but also the economic growth of the country. Oil imports are also responsible for the large negative balance of payments of the U.S. and the constant out-flow of a large portion of the GNP to foreign countries. The bipartisan proposal on the U.S. Senate’s table (reported in the CE&N, December 5, 2005) now provides a comprehensive plan to achieve oil independence in the U.S. as follows:

1.Timed reductions of oil imports: 2.5 million bbl/day in 10 years and 10 million bb/day by 2031.

2.Government to provide continuous tax credits for ethanol production and distribution.

3.Retool the automotive industry to produce only automobiles with flexible fuel (E85) engines.

4.Provide $200 million/yr for five years for cellulose ethanol technology development and production.

5.Allow duty-free import of ethanol from global producers into the U.S.

Clearly and importantly for the forest industry to note, the Senate agenda identifies “cellulose ethanol” as the future fuel of choice by which oil independence is to be achieved.

It is not solar, wind, nuclear or hydrogen energy, it is cellulose ethanol.

Enormous energy challenges face the world as fossil supplies run out (Energy Futures Coalition, 2002). The challenge will require bold new initiatives that target governance, resources, technologies and investments to secure clean, affordable, and reliable energy for all. More than half of the world’s population lives in rural areas, 90% of them (2.8 billion) live in developing countries and depend on traditional fuels of wood, dung and crop residues, but which are rarely adequate for productive uses and income generation. Bioethanol production, the fuel of choice, can turn the world energy supply upside down by becoming the world’s distributed fuel energy supplier. As evidenced by the U.S. Senate proposal to develop a cellulose bioethanol technology and, with due consideration for the global raw material supply possibilities unmatchable by grain sources, the future raw material for ethanol is clearly identified as biomass. More than 50% of the U.S. biomass waste resource (1.3 billion T/yr) is to originate from forest thinnings (the other half from agricultural crops and MSW) on 40 million acres of mature forests in direct jurisdiction of the Forest Service, the private land owners and the forest companies, according to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, and provides 760 million T of low quality forest biomass. In Canada, British Columbia alone has in excess of 400 million T of thinning material coming from operations halted by the Liberal government (I am told), beetle-killed timber, uncommitted sawmill residues and raw material resources now released by closing pulp mills. Therefore, as the U.S. cellulose ethanol industry unfolds, the Canadian forest industry will not be able to avoid the pressure to follow suit and get involved in bioethanol production from wood waste. Indeed, it is surprising that more forest companies have not engaged in cellulose ethanol research and production to date and seem to ignore the writing on the wall.

P
otentially, the economic outlook for cellulose ethanol is significantly better than that of grain ethanol. It has been predicted (Goldstein, 1974) that 85-92% of all petroleum chemicals can also be produced by refining one or the other component of biomass. Biomass is a versatile raw material. Therefore, the options for added value co-products from biomass are unimaginably broad, as well. Recognizing this potential, several papers were published during the past two years by Agenda 2020 directors in the U.S., extolling the advantages of the “forest biorefinery” concept in kraft pulping, as they attempt to justify government spending on improving the production economics of kraft pulping by “forcing ballet slippers onto a logger’s feet”. While the gain in profitability, through the extra steps added to kraft pulping, is small (they do not improve the pulp yield) and the capital expenditure for complete retooling in the recovery sector is substantial, at a time when the industry has consistent profitability problems, application of the term “forest biorefinery”, dealing mostly with process corrections after the fact, must be characterized as blatant exaggeration.

Economical conversion (refining) of wood requires technology that is capable of isolating the individual wood components (carbohydrates, lignin and extractives) that will provide the starting materials for a multitude of products, having substantially higher value than represented by their energy content. Even the bioethanol value (the lowest value product in biorefining) made from softwoods at 300 kg/T (380 L/T), is worth $180 CDN at 47 c/L (and up to 63 c/L during the recent oil price hike) is higher than $78/T (at $6.50/ MBtu for natural gas) obtained from direct burning of green wood. Since ethanol production has no wood quality requirements (converted wood waste has the same value as the chemicals made from a #1 sawlog), truly remarkable value recovery can be achieved on chemical conversion of biomass. Due to lack of forest industry interest in bioethanol, Canadian government support for biomass conversion technology development is largely inadequate, unfocused and disproportionate for its social (both economic and environmental) importance. The bipartisan U.S. Senate program for achieving energy self-sufficiency should be taken as a wake-up call for the Canadian forest industry, indicating the potentials of biomass as biofuel source in the not so distant future. Continued resistance of the forest industry to investing in bioethanol (forest refining) developments will result in foregoing the opportunity in foreign marketing, in more than one form, its non-merchantable timber and wood waste, at a premium price in the future.

At this point in time, forest and pulp companies have two choices in getting involved, viz., pursue the bioethanol technology development by a) investing individually or b) following the U.S. pulp industry strategy as exemplified by Agenda 2020 in accessing government funding to finance process development for chemical conversion of biomass (sell the true forest biorefinery concept to the government). Agenda 2020 is not about proving the forest biorefinery concept, it is about fixing an economically broken and environmentally expensive industry (kraft pulping). Forest biorefining technology is about creating an alternate, renewable fuel source from wood waste (biomass), that has nothing to do with correcting the shortcomings and problems identified for the kraft pulping process, but has everything to do with renewable liquid fuel, organic chemicals and even affordable distributed electricity and heat supplies to individual households. It is a new industry that can free-up up to 8.5 times more energy than it takes to make the fuel (bioethanol), that can reduce the senseless waste associated with current raw material transportation and fuel distribution to consumer markets and that will create jobs and prospects for continued economic growth, while all along protecting the environment. Yes, the Canadian forest industry could be a leader or a follower of the U.S. and the rest of the world, that only begins to see the trees from the forest as its future renewable, indigenous energy source.

Dr. Laszlo Paszner is the president of Paszner Technologies Inc., of Surrey, BC. He can be reached at: lpaszner@shaw.ca


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