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Thursday, May 11, 2017

1st International Forest Biorefinery Conference

I attended the 1st International Forest Biorefinery Conference (IFBC), held in Thunder Bay, Ontario on May 9-10, 2017.

I've been to Thunder Bay regularly from about 2009 until my retirement in 2016, as the pilot lignin extraction facilities that I developed as a manager at FPInnovations were installed there and I had up to six employees onsite. The city is big enough, at over 100,000 people, that there is a critical mass of university and college campuses, government offices and labs, and industrial capacity to get things done, but small enough that everyone knows everyone else. So it was nice heading back to see old colleagues and partners.

It was also nice to see that this conference, organised by Lakehead University's Biorefining Research Institute, featured a broad selection of solid papers, not just from Ontario-based Ph.D. students and professors but also research institutes from Sweden, Finland, Belgium and the US, to name a few. Close to 150 attendees, including close to 50 presenters, made the trek to Thunder Bay. A few highlights follow.

Opening plenary sessions included reviews of the LignoBoost (Per Tomani of RISE Bioeconomy) and LignoForce technologies (Mike Paleologou of FPInnovations). In a later session, Kirsten Maki, also of FPInnovations, described the LignoForce pilot plant in Thunder Bay and installation of the full-scale plant at the West Fraser mill in Hinton, Alberta. I won't get into the details as I am biased -- the LignoForce system, developed by Mike and scaled up by Kirsten when they worked for me, is clearly better, but don't let that influence your decision as to which one to buy for your mill. (See my report on the 7th NWBC, here, for a description of the LignoBoost pilot at Backhammar, Sweden).

Michel Jean of Domtar described the company's move to novel products. Paper, specifically uncoated freesheet where they are a market leader, currently represents 50% of sales, but this is declining at 3% to 5% per year. He mentioned the need to move slowly into novel bio-products or risk failure, and stressed the importance of understanding the markets when doing so. That being said, they have four projects on the go, having triaged a much wider set of several hundred ideas:
  • Cellulose nano-filaments made in the CelluForce plant at Windsor, Quebec. This joint venture with FPInnovations now has added investments from Fibria and Schlumberger. 
  • Lignin, dubbed Bio-Choice lignin, from the LignoBoost plant at Plymouth, North Carolina. 
  • The so-called 'super pulp' cellulose filament additive made in Dryden, Ontario.
  • Compounding of lignin with commodity thermoplastics at Espanola, Ontario. 
Interestingly, while 75% of Domtar's manufacturing capacity is in the US, three of the four bio-products plants are in Canada. It is also nice to see a company of Domtar's size prepared to invest at this level, and one can only hope it pays off, if only to prod their competitors to boost their own spending on innovation.

Alan Smith, Director of Business Development at Avantium, described fast-moving developments in this growing company. The company has spun out its core YXY technology, for converting fructose to PEF, into a joint venture with BASF called Synvina. They have also developed a proprietary wood to sugars platform based on patented improvements to the classic high-acid, low temperature process exemplified by the old HCl CleanTech process and many others. The improvements are said to cover acid/sugar separation, material construction, and lignin de-acidification. (If getting sulfur out of lignin from kraft mills is important, I can only assume getting the chlorine out of lignin from a hydrochloric acid process will be no less so.) The process generates three streams (a C5/C6 sugar stream from the hemicellulose portion of wood, a glucose stream from the cellulose, and a sugar-free lignin). All three must be sold; this will be a recurring theme in the world of wood-to-sugars processes. He commented that the cost basis for the glucose will depend on the market value of the other products, which I assume means that the glucose will only be profitable if enough revenue is obtained from the other two streams. This will also be a recurring theme in this space. There are plans for an eventual plant consuming 300,000 to 400,000 dry tonnes of wood per year.

Finally, Avantium is working on a sugar to bio-MEG (monoethylene glycol) pathway which would allow sugar to replace both components in plastic bottles. The pathway is said to be much cheaper than traditional bio-MEG routes, and competitive with petroleum-based MEG. Their partnerships with customer-facing companies like Coca-Cola will ensure that the techno-economic analyses will be thorough. This is one to watch.

On the biofuels front, Jack Saddler of UBC covered pathways to biojet in the plenary session. Later, two entire sessions went into greater detail on various biofuels pathways. I won't cover these here; Jack admitted that kerosene is cheap and bio-jet only works, economically, because there are policy and other non-business drivers that overcome the poor economics. My feeling continues to be that wood in particular is too expensive to make into fuels, and that value-added products must be the route forward when wood is the feedstock. Fuels will come from any left-overs, not the reverse. And since the value-added pathways are more challenging, both technically and economically, this is where the effort needs to be.

A number of academic presenters, PhD students or their supervisors, described early-stage bio-chemicals and bio-materials pathways variously involving glycerol, pyrolysis oils, bio-carbon, PHAs and other intermediates. It is hard to say at this point which ones will do well, because success depends as much on luck or marketing approaches as on technical excellence. (The old folks among you will recall the VHS versus Beta battles.)

One thing is clear: pathways to aromatics remain critical if wood-to-sugars pathways are to be economically viable. Ludo Diels of VITO in Belgium described pathways from sugars (furans via glucose, or furfuryl alcohol via xylose) and from lignin. Low reactivity, high molecular weights and high polydispersity of lignin when compared to petroleum-based aromatics remain problems, according to Diels. An interesting way of looking at different molecules is on a plot of percent oxygen content versus percent hydrogen content, as proposed by Thomas Farmer [1]: petrochemical molecules are all along the x-axis (essentially no oxygen) while lignin and cellulose are to the left and up (lower hydrogen content, but more oxygen). In between are a range of oxygenated petrochemicals, for instance polyethylene terephthalate, (C10H8O4)n. The length and complexity of the track followed by various transformation processes from the proposed feedstock (petrochemical or biomass) to the proposed end product on this graph is an indicator of the difficulty of the process in terms of hydrogenation or de-oxygenation. Given this, going all the way from lignin to one of the BTX molecules is probably not necessary (or feasible), especially if you  are going to re-oxygenate to PET, so intermediate lignin products with new functionalities will be critical.

On the policy and analysis side, Cooper Robinson of Cap-Op Energy described the processes for getting Renewable Fuel Credits (RFS2) and for certifying a fuel under California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). These are here to stay, according to him, but the animosity of the current US government to the EPA may be a threat, at least to the RFS program. Other issues include how to allocate GHG emissions in the case of multiple products, where not all are fuels, and how to get credit for a bio-chemical that may displace a GHG-intensive petroleum-based pathway to an identical or similar molecule. This is a complex space where money can be made if the right accounting procedures are put in place.

Peter Milley, of Halifax Global and a graduate student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, described policy issues in the context of his PhD thesis, which is related to commercially viable pathways to a forest bioeconomy. The Canadian track record is not pretty, with a range of relatively uncoordinated approaches, applied reactively rather than proactively and as part of a long-term strategic plan, and with little in the way of follow-up once deadlines expire. He offered the Finnish national bioeconomy strategy (click here) as an example worth reading, along with reports from the OECD (here) and EU (here). That being said, I would argue the Canadian approach has been far more effective than the large grants from the US Department of Energy; Canadian funding has generally gone to successful projects and has not gotten sucked into quagmires such as the KiOR or Range Fuels disasters. As a result, progress has been slow but has tended to generate better results per dollar of taxpayer money than in the US.

Unfortunately, the organisers had similar sessions scheduled concurrently and in parallel rather than sequentially, so that attendees were forced to choose which bio-fuels session, or which policy session, to attend. So I missed an entire policy session with some very interesting papers, as well as some biorefinery talks I would have liked to see. Hopefully this will be changed in future events. Apart from this quibble, the quality of the presentations and the breadth of expertise in the audience was a very nice surprise given the location, and I am hoping there will be a second edition in a year or 18 months from now.

Were you there? Do your recollections and analysis agree with mine, or do you have a different viewpoint? Did you see interesting presentations that I did not discuss? Drop me a note using the Comments box (for public use) or by e-mail (if you want your comments kept private): Tom (at)

[1] T.J.Farmer, M.Mascal, Chapter 4: Platform Molecules, in Introduction to Chemicals from Biomass 2nd Ed., Wiley, 2014.

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