Although risk, as well as investment sources, are important issues for the wood bio-products industry, the longterm outlook and possibilities are bright. That was the message conveyed at the COFI Convention session on this emerging industry, which encompasses a wide variety of wood-derived products, including materials, fuels, chemicals, resins and even sugar-based foods.
Trevor Stuthridge, Vice-President of FP Innovations, did emphasize, however, that the bio-industry has to be integrated into the existing value chain of wood products. For example, he sees great possibilities for the wood by-product lignin which could be used to develop products that replace glues in the manufacture of engineered wood.
Another exciting new area is the production of sugars from wood. Currently in the world, a lot of valuable farm land is taken up by the growing of sugar-related crops. Wood has a “wonderful advantage” in that it is not a competitor for this farmland and sugar substances derived from it can be used for bio-plastics, food additives, polymers, and so on.
West Fraser has a number of bio-operations, either on the go or in the development phase. Rod Albers, from West Fraser, explained that these include two power plants utilizing biomass (one at Fraser Lake, the other in Chetwynd), a lignin recovery plant / bio-refinery in Hinton, and a pulp bio-methanation operation in Slave Lake. The bio-refinery in Hinton is currently looking at developing activated carbon production, which is a substance used for emission control and absorption of impurities. Another area of development is what is termed advanced cellulose material, which includes cellulose nano fibrils (CNF), a versatile, high strength product. Although these new bio-products are exciting, he cautioned that they involve higher risk than traditional forest companies may be willing to take on.
Torrefaction is a process that involves roasting wood and is the second generation in wood pellet production. The end result is bio-coal and that is what is now being produced at Diacarbon Energy in Merritt, BC. The president of the company, Jerry Ericsson, explains that bio-coal has many advantages over both wood pellets (greater energy density) and mined coal (lower emissions, carbon neutral, not subject to coal tax). However, the biggest barrier to torrefaction is access to capital, and operations need support both from investors and government.
Sandy Ferguson, VP of Corporate Development from Conifex, pointed out that the growth in the bio-chemical sector is phenomenal and that specialty chemicals are becoming more appealing. She noted that currently 25 bio-refineries were either operating or under construction in the U.S. But, like Jerry Ericsson, she says that it is “a tough environment for raising financing.”