CRFA attendees focus on next-gen bioindustry

By Kris Bevill | November 15, 2010
Posted Dec. 3, 2010

Attendees of the 7th annual Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit, held Nov. 29 - Dec. 1 in Gatineau, Quebec, spent much of the three-day event discussing a comprehensive path forward for the Canadian biofuels industry. There was no debate that continued support of first-generation biofuels through increased federal blending mandates and financial incentives is necessary. But it was also acknowledged by most speakers and attendees that first-generation support is necessary to spur advanced biofuels development and a robust advanced biofuels and bioproducts industry is required if Canada is to achieve the summit's goal of "Growing Beyond Oil."

Many of the event's speakers represented cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels companies, and nearly all mentioned a desire to partner with Canadian firms to advance their production plans. Canada's immense forestry sector presents multiple opportunities for these companies and was the topic of an afternoon session that included speakers from the pulp and paper industry, the Forest Products Association of Canada and UOP, a Honeywell Co.

Paul Lansbergen, director of energy, economics and climate change for the Forest Products Association, presented findings from the association's Bio-Pathways Project, which was conducted in order to assist the forest products industry in determining its best options for transformation. Phase 1 of the project, which was completed last year, identified biorefineries as an ideal reformation for pulp and paper mills because the production processes can be easily combined. "Instead of just making pulp and paper, it could serve its own energy needs through biomass co-generation and it could also make other energy products as well as chemicals," he said. "You can make ethanol, you can make pulp, you can have a paper machine on site, you can make some chemicals such as furfural and lignin, which you can further refine into other niche chemicals." The second phase of the project is focused on analyzing business models and market potential for the identified optimal pathways and will be released in February.

While there are several cellulosic ethanol companies who plan to use wood and wood wastes as feedstocks, Canada's forestry sector could find more potential partners by focusing on bioproducts and other fuels, according to Omar Irani, senior business manager for Honeywell/UOP. His presentation focused on relaying information UOP has received from its customers, mainly members of the petrochemical industry. Not surprisingly, that industry's "wish list" includes drop-in replacement fuels that can be used in the existing infrastructure. "They want a fuel replacement," he said. "A lot of our customers view ethanol as an additive, that's just the way they see it." UOP acted on its customers' feedback and has formed a partnership with Ensyn Technologies Inc. to produce pyrolysis heating oil, and potentially drop-in ready transport fuels, from woody biomass.

Alain Bourdages, director of energy development and strategy for pulp and paper company AbitibiBowater Inc., painted a slightly broader picture of what the pulp and paper industry is looking for in a partner. He was frank about the shrinking demand for his industry's traditional products and about AbitibiBowater's recent financial difficulties. According to him, biofuels and bioproducts offer an ideal opportunity for pulp and paper companies to diversify away from their traditional products and AbitibiBowater is willing to entertain any product partnership, so long as the potential partner can provide the specific technical expertise. "We're a forest products company," he said. "We're not an IP [intellectual property] developer. We don't do a whole lot of research and development. Our approach is basically to bring what we have to processes that are close to maturity and bring in that extra push of having the feedstock, the security, the infrastructure and other elements. Our interest is bringing as much value out of the forest as we can. So if it's ethanol, it's ethanol. If it's biodiesel, it's biodiesel. If it's chemicals only, it's chemicals only. We're really not that attached to any given product."

But while industry members are well aware of the potential for a Canadian bioproducts industry, policymakers appeared to be caught somewhat off-guard by the concept. When a panel of three parliamentary representatives was asked by an audience member why policy support is focused solely on biofuels rather than bioproducts as well, all three seemed surprised by the question. They said the first step in forming policy to support bioproducts is to inform parliament about the industry.