March 21 is the International Day of Forests proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly back in 2012. The timely theme for 2017 is: Forests and Energy.

The iconic boreal forest is a symbol of natural beauty, joy, pride, and power to Ontarians. It is both a carbon source and a sink; the forest aids the natural “carbon cycle” process, which is fundamental to life on Earth.

Forest wood has been an age-old source of energy and it continues to be so. Bioenergy from forest biomass has become increasingly significant because of its low carbon footprint, regeneration, and scope for useful products. All parts of the tree – the trunk, the bark, the branches, the needles or leaves, and even the roots – can all be converted into solids (e.g., wood pellets) liquids (ethanol), or gaseous (producer gas) biofuels.

The emerging technologies that convert forest biomass, residues and forestry assortments like sawdust and shavings, fuel logs, early thinnings, hog fuel and pulpwood, into liquid fuels and chemicals under the “bio refining” concept is gaining momentum. The approach is renewable and helps in moving away from a hydrocarbon (coal, oil, natural gas) economy to a more sustainable, carbohydrate- (fuels and chemicals from biomass) based future that minimizes greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The factors that drive the development of this liquid biofuel market are the fluctuation of the petroleum crude prices and the ongoing environmental damage caused by fossil fuels. Many countries have made it mandatory to blend a stipulated quantity of bioethanol and biodiesel with petrol (gas) and diesel, respectively. The blending requirement in Canada is an average of 5 per cent ethanol to gasoline.

The automobile industry has designed vehicles to make use of these blended transportation fuels. Most cars and other vehicle types can now run on blended fuels, such as E10 (10 per cent ethanol, 90 per cent gasoline) or E85 (a gasoline-ethanol blend containing 51 per cent to 83 per cent ethanol, depending on geography and season).

The on-going global and local efforts in the production of biomass-derived liquid fuels is promising. The benefits of reducing fossil-based petroleum use cannot be ignored, whether we believe in climate change or are absolutely against it. It doesn’t matter. This is going to have to be part of our economic and business model in the future.

Ethanol production can add to regional economy particularly for the rural and the farming communities. Because it is predominantly made from Canadian corn and wheat, a substantial ethanol industry would potentially mean new diversified rural economies and markets for biomass, agriculture, and forestry in this country.

One of the pioneers in this field is the St. Clair Ethanol Plant in the Sarnia-Lambton region of Ontario, which uses 40 million bushels of corn annually and has a current production capacity of 400 million litres per year that is then blended into Petro-Canada gasoline.

Thunder Bay-based Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE) supported Ensyn Technologies’ Renfrew biofuel plant in eastern Ontario. The plant produces liquid biofuel from forest residues.

While bioethanol is principally produced from starch-based edible resources, Canada has become a world leader in the development of technology for converting cellulosic (woody) feedstocks such as agriculture and forestry wastes. This wood-based ethanol is called cellulosic ethanol, also referred to as second generation biofuels or advanced biofuel. Iogen Corporation, Canada has transferred this conversion technology to Brazil.

The use of such woody resources, instead of edible starch, will enable the use of large forest and agricultural resources, and therefore reduce the strain on wheat and corn food markets. Although the technical aspect of this process has been well established, its economic feasibility is largely dependent on the petroleum market.

One way to add revenue to the woody cellulosic ethanol industry is to make use of components besides cellulose to produce value-added products, namely hemicellulose and lignin. Thunder Bay Resolute Forest Products mill is exploring the possibility of using lignin for wider applications.

The potential use of hemicellulose, the soluble sugar polymer present in wood, for producing the starting material for bioplastics has been demonstrated in Lakehead University’s bio-refining lab.

Another possible idea is to produce high-value low-volume pharmaceutically useful products that are already present in bark (e.g., birch) extracts, for medical and health products, such as cancer treatment.

Going forward, tax incentives, procurement policies, sustainable forest management, innovation and research, as well as political will are all key in creating momentum in making the growth of bioeconomy with liquid fuel a reality.

While biofuels have a number of benefits, they alone will not serve as the golden bullet to address environment problems. A bigger lens with a diverse renewable energy mix, energy efficiency and conservation practices is necessary for a sustainable future.

Roopa Rakshit is a PhD candidate, Faculty of Natural Resources Management, Lakehead University. She is pursuing community energy transition planning. She is a board member of Environment North. Her column appears here on the first Sunday of every month.