Biorefining leaders convene in Alberta

By Tom Bryan


(reproduced with permission from the author)


More than 130 representatives of government, academia and industry in Canada converged Nov.8 at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, within Alberta’s picturesque Banff National Park, for the University of Alberta’s 2nd Annual Biorefining Conversions Network Strategic Retreat. 

Biorefining Conversions Network Director David Bressler opened the retreat by underscoring the promise of Alberta’s burgeoning bioindustrial sector and challenging participants to help the BCN shape its strategic mission. “We’re here to focus and refine the mission of the network,” he said. 

Setting out to cultivate Alberta’s bioindustrial sector, the BCN has effectively become an incubator of partnerships to develop technologies and systems for converting biomass into “drop-in” chemicals, advanced biofuels and other biobased products, Bressler said. 

Ellen Macdonald, associate dean of Research, Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta–the BCN’s host institution–said the province has the potential to become a world leader in biorefining and bioconversions. Echoing Bressler’s call to action, Macdonald said, “Let’s fledge the ideas and forge the partnerships that will take the BCN to the next level.” 

With an unmistakably supportive tone, Alberta Deputy Premier Doug Horner lauded the BCN for its leadership and called on retreat participants to seek collaborative, unconventional approaches to biorefining in Alberta. “This is the place that made unconventional oil possible,” Horner said, referring to the pioneering extraction and refining of oil from Alberta’s oils sands. “That type of unconventional approach is where we’re headed.” 

Given the mottled environmental reputation of the oil sands–fair or not–Horner and other speakers at the retreat civilly emphasized the need for a sustainable, infrastructure-compatible biorefining industry in Alberta. “Imagine if you could tell your customers that they could use your sustainable products with no changes to their processes or infrastructure,” Horner said. 

Tim Haig, CEO of BIOX Corp., the largest biodiesel producer in Canada, was one of three keynote speakers at the retreat Nov. 8. Haig, too, referenced the ironic fact that Alberta is home to the BCN and a burgeoning biorefining community. “It might be unexpected from a province with an oil base,” he said. 

Haig, who made no reference to the beleaguered U.S. biodiesel industry during his 40-minute presentation, said Canada’s biorefining industry, including biodiesel production, has “no chance without strong policy to drive it.” 

BIOX, which employs what Bressler called a “disruptive cosolvent technology,” went public in March and is moving forward with a plan to expand its production capacity, perhaps by acquiring existing industrial assets, Haig said. The Ontario-based company isn’t free of troubles, however. “It’s been tough … really tough,” Haig said, referring to Canada’s still undefined B2 mandate. “We’re still waiting on commitments that were made by the federal government that haven’t come through.” 

Consistent with the stance of the U.S.-based National Biodiesel Board, Haig lucidly framed fatty acid methyl ester biodiesel as a “drop-in” biofuel–what the NBB refers to emphatically as the only commercialized adanced biofuel on the market. “Biodiesel is one of those thin edges of the wedge in terms of getting more biomass into the market now,” Haig said. “When it comes to biomass, everyone tends to think electrons, but we really should be thinking about transportation fuels.” 

After pointing out that the U.S. uses more than one-third of the world’s oil production output annually, Haig called America’s $700 billion per year defense expenditure a “tax.” Referencing a slide depicting the slumping production of the world’s principal crude oil fields, he said, “Let’s be candid. Oil is not sustainable. That’s a frightening curve.” 

Haig said coal, too, will eventually “have its day,” as North America leans slowly into a “carbohydrate age” defined by the mass production of high-value products from biomass such as agricultural and forestry residues. He said the total energy content of all of Canada’s available biomass could replace more than 17 percent of the nation’s annual energy supply-or 70 percent of it transportation fuel supply. “That’s obviously not going to happen,” he said. “That’s not realistic. But the point is that we can make a significant impact. People would like you to believe that biomass can’t make a big impact, or that it’s too difficult. Don’t listen to it. We have very significant quantities of available biomass … quantities that can make a difference.” 

Haig disputed the “indirect land use change” theory, saying it is a mistake to assert that all of the world’s agricultural lands are “maxed out,” or that world food markets were in equilibrium before the rapid global rise of biofuels production. To the contrary, he said, Canada needs to grow more biomass, not only on existing farmlands but also on untapped marginal lands where perennial energy grasses like miscanthus could be cultivated for advanced biofuels and biobased platform chemicals. 

Haig closed with a call for improved market access for biofuels and bioproducts, a reference to Canada’s inactive B2 mandate. “Most of the people I talk to aren’t looking for subsidies,” he said. “They’re looking for smart policies that drive market access. … Mandates will help farmers move markets in the right ways.” 

Trevor Kloeck, leader of the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre, said the emergent biorefining and biomaterials sector is being driven by dwindling global easy-to-get petroleum resources, the steadily escalating cost of energy, and growing consumer demand for greener products. He said Alberta is positioned to become a “bioeconomy powerhouse” with an abundant supply of biomass feedstocks. 

Kloeck pointed out that 23 million acres of Alberta’s total 53 million acres are dedicated to crops, making it one of the world’s richest sources of agricultural residues. In addition, the province has vast forestlands, many of which border productive farmland. “We have to leverage these places where forestry and agriculture interface,” Kloeck said. “We could integrate existing ag resources with forestry infrastructure. Right now, these industries are still looking at each other over the fence.” 

While the degree to which agriculture and forestry may be able to interface in Alberta’s future biorefining industry is unclear, the province’s abundant forestry resources and its existing industrial base all but ensure that wood residues will be a crucial biorefining feedstock in the region. Alberta has more than 33 million hectares of mostly boreal forest, the vast majority of which is provincially owned. 

While a great deal of forestry and wood processing residues are produced each year by the province’s seven pulp mills, six panel board mills and 23 saw mills, almost all of that “waste” is used for on-site thermal energy or cogeneration. According to Amit Kumar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, that means that forestry resources used for biorefining in Alberta will likely come from “roadside residues” from logging operations, as well as dead, dying and low-quality trees. Aggregating residues from these and other sources poses scale-up problems, however, particularly in terms of transportation logistics and cost. So Kumar is exploring the idea of transporting biomass via pipeline from the forest to centrally located large-scale biorefineries. 

“With trucks, there is no economy-of-scale benefit,” Kumar explained. “The cost per ton remains the same.” 

Kumar said rail transportation achieves minor economies of scale, while pipelining biomass–delivering “chopped biomass” slurried with water via a two-way pipeline–has very strong economies of scale. “You would have to transport a certain distance, and at a certain scale, to get the benefit of this,” he said, adding that there are many variables and unknowns associated with building and operating a biomass pipeline, the logistics of particle sizing, mixing and separating to name only a few. 

The BCN strategic retreat continued into the afternoon of Nov.8 with presentations on biological, chemical, and thermal conversion pathways, as well as technical sessions on long-chain alcohol biofuels, a biomass route to dimethyl ether, and the pyrolysis of triglycerides. Panels on biomass feedstocks, biobased chemicals, and advanced biofuels will conclude at noon Nov.9, followed by strategic small-group workshops in the afternoon.