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Give Me One Good Reason for Biofuels


April 1, 2011
By Pulp & Paper Canada

I’ve attended two pulp and paper industry events with an emphasis on biorefining in the last few weeks – one on each side of the border. While the technical discussions are largely the same, the business development talk is strikingly different.

I’ve attended two pulp and paper industry events with an emphasis on biorefining in the last few weeks – one on each side of the border. While the technical discussions are largely the same, the business development talk is strikingly different.

In the U.S., the push for energy independence is bankrolling development in the biofuels sector. Lignocellulosic biofuels are caught up in that wave. A representative of the U.S. Department of Energy, speaking at TAPPI’s International Bioenergy & Bioproducts Conference, declared biofuels are the only viable alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels at this time, and the U.S. desperately wants an alternative to imported oil.

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Colin South, now chief technology officer of Canadian biotech supplier Lignol Energy Corp., and founder of two other biochem companies, summed up the situation in his keynote speech at the TAPPI event in Atlanta, Ga.

South argues that the biofuels and biochem industry should use the current socio-political emphasis on environmental benefit and energy security to secure legislative backing and start-up subsidies, and then use that stable base to move into biochemicals.

There has been discussion on both sides of the border about why pulp and paper companies would want enter the biofuels sector, especially since producing ethanol essentially means entering a commodity market with a low-value product.

South’s proposed solution is to use the biofuels market as a stepping stone to higher value products, “because nobody cares if you create a $5/gallon chemical. It hasn’t got the same national imperative as energy independence.”

He notes that there is a lesson to be learned from the corn ethanol industry. This industry has experienced tremendous growth in the past 20 years, and stands as an example of what can be achieved with a single-minded focus on a single product.

Unfortunately, even just in woody biomass-derived biofuels and biochemicals right now, there are multiple product platforms, multiple transformation technologies, multiple feedstocks and multiple markets; it makes it very hard to stay focused.

To get a market-driven incentive program, we (woody biomass biofuels) need to come in under the energy security issue, South concludes. Success with that would change the way financiers see the market as well.

How does this relate to the Canadian situation? Several biomass technologies are poised to go commercial, and when they do, well, technology knows no borders.

As for incentives, we in Canada have the Forest Products Association of Canada lobbying for “bio-pathways” and Natural Resources Canada supporting pilot projects, but we’re lacking that “national imperative”, that one simple reason that would coalesce support for wood-derived biofuels.


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