January 4, 2007

Utilizing Pine Beetle Wood Waste as BIOstock

Forestry Dean Jack Saddler forecasts a seismic charge in agricultural and forest industries - photo by Darin Dueck

The size of the Mountain pine beetle (MPB) blight in Canada is in direct proportion to the number of trees found there. It is believed by many scientists that there is a connection between global warming and the spread of the infestation.

In an article published today by the University of British Columbia (UBC) the magnitude of the problem is pegged at about 1 Billion cubic meters of lodgepole in British Columbia by 2013. "An outbreak of this size is unprecedented in recorded history." That piece of information begs the following question - what is the total for all forests in North America?

In this article, UBC professor Jack Saddler projects that "if only 25 per cent of the MPB-killed wood was converted to ethanol, it could supply between five and ten years worth of BC’s gasoline requirements." Of even greater value of such an enterprise is the mitigation of the risk of having so much standing deadwood in our forests. How much particulate matter and CO2 will be released from fires consuming just some these trees? What impact would such fires have on industry, tourism, and population centers throughout the world?

Here are some excerpts from Professor Saddler's article...

Back to the Future: Substituting Wood for Oil with the “Forest Biorefinery”
By Jack Saddler, Professor of Forest Products Biotechnology and Dean
and Warren Mabee, Research Associate, Dept. of Wood Science, Faculty of Forestry

Over the past few years, the University of British Columbia (UBC) has been fortunate in obtaining federal and provincial support to establish a world class Clean Energy Research Centre based in the Faculty of Applied Science, while the Faculty of Forestry has received about $2.5 million to establish a Process Development Unit (PDU) to assess the potential of wood-based biofuels and chemicals. Our group also acts as the Task Leaders for the International Energy Agency's (IEA) network, coordinating the technical and policy issues influencing the global commercialization of liquid biofuels from biomass.

The ongoing Mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreak (is) projected to cumulatively impact almost 1 billion cubic metres of lodgepole pine in the province of British Columbia by 2013. An outbreak of this size is unprecedented in recorded history. There is an accumulating surplus of standing deadwood in our forests, which increases the danger of catastrophic fires and reduces the merchantable volume of the working forest. While we will try to recover as much of the beetle-killed wood as possible in the short term for structural applications, we know that wood impacted by MPB loses its value as timber over time, and so wood that has been standing dead for extended periods cannot be processed into lumber, pulp or other advanced wood products. In the longer term, development of bioenergy applications may provide us with a cost-effective product that justifies harvesting and replanting activities. For example, if only 25 per cent of the MPB-killed wood was converted to ethanol, it could supply between five and ten years worth of BC’s gasoline requirements.

For the global forest industry, moving away from fossil fuels is an economic necessity, as volatility associated with fossil fuels has resulted in high energy costs for the industry in recent years. There is a need to extract additional values from our forest resource, and a need to accept ecosystem realities in forest industry practices. Biofuels and bioenergy, which are inherently carbon-neutral and work within the carbon cycle, represent a new model of business which all types of industry could follow.

A number of technological platforms for biofuel production exist and each should be explored to compare their effectiveness and their ability to produce value-added co-products. In all cases, the use of wood for biofuel production should be linked to bioenergy and bioproduct generation, creating a 'biorefinery' with multiple outputs. The biorefinery concept provides maximum economic and environmental returns by efficiently utilizing all components of the wood.

The size of the biofuel and bioenergy opportunity in Canada is huge and biorefinery technologies can and will bring about major changes to the sustainable energy future for our nation. These technologies have the potential to add long-term, sustainable jobs in rural, urban, and aboriginal communities. What is needed now is continued collaboration to create technical platforms for effective and sustainable use of bioenergy, and a strong political will for putting these platforms to work.

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Kody said...

The MPB wood is already being used heavily in another type of "biorefinery" process... It's being turned into wood pellets. The wood pellets are sold mainly to Europe and Asia I believe for use in pellet burners.

What's more efficient from a bioconversion standpoint? Using pellets to directly heat homes and water and therefore save on electricity and natural gas (which could be used in vehicles), or converting wood to ethanol for these same uses?

C. Scott Miller said...

Great question. I am not an expert on the comparative EROI for this question but I would like to comment anyway.

I think there needs to be consideration of the comparative impact on carbon emissions. When the wood is converted to wood pellets (involving carbon emission in the production process) and the pellets are combusted to provide heat (with resulting carbon emission and ash disposal) we have one level of total carbon waste entering the environment. How much, I can't say.

Compare that to the "ideal" biorefinery that gasifies the wood into syngas that is captured in the system (no carbon emission with very little ash). What you do with the syngas that becomes a question. Syngas fermentation results in the production of biofuel - ethanol, butanol, or even H2 - without carbon emission. Importantly, the residual gasification heat can also cleanly create electricity via steam - again no carbon emission.

What happens if you combust the syngas to create more electricity? Don't you create more carbon emissions? Yes. What happens when you combust the biofuels for, say, automobiles? For ethanol and butanol you create more carbon emissions but less than gasoline. For H2 - No carbon emissions.

I favor gasification and syngas fermentation over wood pellets because of the clean residual heat electricity that is produced and renewable biofuels that are also produced that replace fossil fuels in other parts of our current energy paradigm.

Another way to look at it is through the prism of carbon neutrality. Simply stated, carbon neutral fuels means that they are converted from above ground feedstock. Fossil fuels are not carbon neutral because they add to the amount of above ground carbon in circulation.

Both wood pellets and bioconversion are carbon neutral. Electricity generated from combusted syngas is also carbon neutral. Combustion of gasoline and other fossil fuels are not carbon neutral. Electric cars and PHEVs that run on electricity generated from the combustion of fossil fuels are not carbon neutral.

So - you see how a straight comparison of wood pellets to biorefineries is more than a straight 1-to-1 question. I think it can be demonstrated that more environmental good can result from using MPB wood as feedstock for biorefineries than for manufacture of wood pellets. Why? Because in the broader scope of things, more fossil fuel dependency is mitigated - the fuel used for electricity generation and the fuel used in vehicles.

Biorefineries clearly contribute more to carbon neutrality than current coal, oil, and natural gas generators.