2008/09/03

Canada's Biorefinery Future

This morning's internet news led me to an insightful and well-written biorefinery article titled "Putting Canada on Track" by Douglas Bradley, president of the Canadian Bioenergy Association.

The point in the article that immediately caught my attention was the amount of biomass resources in Canada not currently being beneficially used. An issue often overlooked in bioenergy or biorefinery plans or proposals is that many, if not most, biomass resources are already being used beneficially. This doesn't mean the biomass is being used in the most beneficial way, or that lower-cost alternatives could not be used to replace their current uses. However, in most parts of the US and the rest of the world, there are not huge piles of biomass sitting around waiting for the emerging biorefinery sector to start converting them into energy, fuel, plastics and other hydrocarbon-based products. There are situations, however, where biomass may either be wasted or cause problems because it is largely being under-utilized. Two examples of this in "Putting Canada on Track" are trees killed by pine beetles and the 'heritage piles' of excess tree bark. Bradley says,
"...The massive pine beetle infestation in British Columbia has killed 450 million cubic metres of pine, six years’ worth of harvest at pre-infestation levels. Forecasters say that by 2013 some 80% of the province’s mature pine could be affected..."
The pine beetles are causing problems in the US also, as illustrated in the article "Should We Pursue Biofuels From Beetle-Killed Wood" and many other articles available online.

As of September 2008, most cellulosic biofuel or biorefinery processes are in the lab or pilot plant stage. In spite of the millions of dollars being spent on research and development, and in spite of all the focus on alternative energy in the mainstream media and political arena, the technology has not been developed to the point where we can economically build and run a biorefinery without multi-million dollar grants and price supports. This means those bark piles and trees killed by pine beetles can't immediately be turned into biofuels. But it also presents a great opportunity for Canadian/US collaboration on intensive full-speed ahead technology development projects where the raw material cost is extremely low.

The article goes on to talk about developments in the wood pellet area, lignocellulosic technologies and "...small-scale portable biorefineries, which can pyrolyse forestry and agricultural wastes, producing bio-oil, fertilizer and char..." Bradley closes the article with a couple suggestions for improving the bioenergy picture in Canada.

One thing I've learned in the past five years is that the biggest technological and sociological opportunity in today's world is improved communication of relevant information. An unbelievable number of very intelligent people are essentially operating in the dark, re-inventing the wheel or at least missing out on valuable collaborations and information, not to mention fun and rewarding relationships. I know there are already some relationships between US and Canadian people involved in the emerging biorefinery sector. But I also know that distance and national borders have prevented the establishment of many relationships that will help the biorefinery technology move forward much faster than it can without those new relationships and collaboration.

Establishing and developing effective, targeted and fun relationships between appropriate people in Canada and the US is a good next step in "putting Canada (and the US) on track." I look forward to helping make connections which lead to useful and interesting progress in the biorefinery world.

*****

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