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Technology and Policy Driving Biofuels Growth


June 1, 2010
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Imagine that it’s 2021, and you’re flying to a town in the B.C. Interior. You pass over a large industrial facility that looks a lot like a kraft pulp mill, but with subtle differences. What you’re se…

Imagine that it’s 2021, and you’re flying to a town in the B.C. Interior. You pass over a large industrial facility that looks a lot like a kraft pulp mill, but with subtle differences. What you’re seeing is a biorefinery, maybe producing kraft pulp, maybe producing ethanol, definitely producing biomass-derived chemicals.

It’s not a far-fetched vision. Various technologies that could be the foundation for such a mill are operating today at the pre-commercial or demonstration level, and government policy is actively encouraging the development of renewable fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.

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Almost all biofuels produced today are first-generation biofuels, based on food feedstocks, and using biochemical processes. So-called second generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, are not yet commercial, but the first commercial plants are expected within the next few years.

“We all know that the technology will work,” says Ross MacLachlan, president and CEO of Lignol Energy Corp. “It’s all about the cost point.” Lignol currently has a pilot plant in Burnaby, B.C. to demonstrate its technology for refining cellulosic biomass into fuel grade ethanol and specialty chemicals.

Ambitious targets push development

Public policy in many jurisdictions favors the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable alternatives. “The targets being set are ambitious, and that’s good,” says UBC’s Dean of Forestry, Jack Saddler. “The U.S. has a defined target for cellulosic biofuels. It will not meet that target, not because of cost constraints, but because the technology is not yet advanced enough.”

Saddler expects the development of a wood-based biofuel industry to proceed along a similar timeline as corn ethanol, which suggests it will be about 10 years before the industry is fully commercial.

Gurminder Minhas, Lignol’s director of technology deployment, points to the American renewable fuel targets to illustrate the market potential for cellulosic ethanol. The U.S. target is 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel in the transportation infrastructure by 2022. It is estimated that corn ethanol will be able to account for 12-15 billion gallons. “They’re looking to cellulosic ethanol to fill that gap,” says Minhas.

Closer to home, Minhas explains that with B.C.’s current target of 5% ethanol blended in gasoline by 2010, the province would need 300,000 to 350,000 L per year of ethanol. A Lignol biorefinery processing 1000 tonnes per day of biomass is similar in size and scope to a mid-size pulp mill, and would produce roughly 100,000 L per year of ethanol. So in B.C. alone, three second-generation cellulosic biofuel facilities would be needed to meet the province’s domestic demand.

The best path is not so clear

One expert at a bioenergy event in Nova Scotia in February noted that technical barriers remain for second-generation biofuel production. “There is no clear candidate for “best technology pathway” between the competing biochemical and thermo-chemical routes,” stated Warren Mabee, director of Queens University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy.

But UBC’s Saddler says consensus on the best path forward is emerging. “It is becoming clearer which technology suits which feedstocks, and which circumstances.” For example, he notes that a kraft mill should probably consider gasification technology, whereas Iogen’s technology is emerging as best suited to wheat straw feedstock.

“For biofuels, what’s going to evolve is a central facility that makes a range of products,” says Saddler. Work in his research group points to a facility that looks a lot like a kraft pulp mill.

This is, in part, because of the logistics of shipping wood chips. It will likely be more economical to ship the finished products, such as ethanol and chemicals, because of their higher value.

In general, says Minhas, a biorefinery needs to be close to the source of biomass. “Ethanol is energy-dense, so it’s relatively inexpensive to transport. Specialty chemicals have higher value so they too are worth the transportation.”

There is an opportunity, over the next decade, for forest companies to participate in the burgeoning biofuels sector. But the road to ethanol production is not a superhighway. Each participant will have to map our their own route.

“We are ready to deploy, if we had mature partners who understand plant operations, the chemical industry, and the energy sector,” says MacLachlan. “That would be a powerful consortium.” PPC


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