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Thursday, June 20, 2019

2nd International Forest Biorefinery Conference

The second edition of this conference, hosted by Lakehead University and sponsored by CRIBE, was held in Thunder Bay June 10-12, 2019.

I hadn't been back to Thunder Bay since the last conference, in March 2017. The big news in Thunder Bay, at least in the biorefinery field, is the recent announcement of the new TMP-Bio pilot plant by FPInnovations and the Resolute Forest Products mill (click here and here). As described by Zhirun Yuan of FPInnovations, this was made possible through large investments by governments at all three levels as well as the two industrial partners. I am particularly excited about this because the patent for this process has my name on it, and because I started the process of building this pilot when I was still research manager. As with everything, it took much longer than expected, but better late than never. Briefly, the process uses a combination of chemistry and mechanical action to reduce woody biomass to sugars and lignin, using simple and proven pulp and paper technologies; competition comes from other hydrolysis and steam explosion processes. Sadly no tour was possible, and while my name is on the patent, I am not privy to recent progress, so I can't spill anything confidential.

Beyond this, the conference (click here) included high-level overviews, detailed reports from a range of graduate students, and a day on business and marketing issues which included a session explicitly on the challenges around scale-up. Some highlights follow.

Matti Heikkila, Chief Technology Officer of Metgen, covered the EU approach to a circular economy. As always, staggering amounts of money are being spent in the field, hopefully leading to rapid progress. The key point for me, however, was that the cost of gene sequencing is currently decreasing by half every 4 months, a staggering rate of advance and one that implies we can expect very rapid development in this field. The forest biorefinery field desperately needs breakthroughs in enzyme applications for lignin and cellulose, and the rapidly decreasing cost of this technology should much allow smaller firms to move much more quickly in this direction. Metgen, as an enzyme producer, is developing interesting new strains, and this is worth tracking.

Ludo Diels of the Flemish research institute VITO provided an overview of some of the pathways under development in the EU, specifically in the area of lignin-based products. Driven by market pull from brand owners, processes for aromatic chemicals from lignin are being moved to pilot scale. It would be very nice if the Canadian forest sector had some market pull! Market push, as I discovered during my career as research manager, is a bit like pushing a rope, uphill, with rabid raccoons dragging the rope back downhill overnight.

Warren Mabee of Queen's University provided a typically thought-provoking, high-level view of carbon capture and storage. Termed carbon capture and reuse, it starts with locking carbon up in long term storage, not in the form of carbon dioxide injected into old oil wells, but in the form of wooden tall buildings. Subsequent steps, when the building needs to be replaced, involves recycling that carbon into progressively shorter-term uses until its end use as a fuel. The key aspect is sequential rather than parallel use of wood in applications of decreasing value, which keeps the carbon involved out of the atmosphere for a longer time. Policies are needed to encourage this long-term sequestration, by providing a benefit to carbon equity, similar to the equity that a home owner builds through mortgage payments. Rewards for designing a building for easy and rapid disassembly for recycling would be a key policy initiative. The issue, of course, is that this will take many years to become effective, but needs to be part of the toolbox to fight climate change in the long term.

In the same context, Ian de la Roche of UBC described ongoing development of tall buildings of wood. While progress is rapid, the number of such buildings world-wide is still small; building and fire codes are part of the challenge, as well as stiff competition from cement and steel producers.

As always a large contingent of graduate students and their supervisors provided updates on a range of processes and products, involving plenty of detailed chemistry. I'll pass on this, mainly because I am poorly placed to comment on chemistry; there is a lot of very high-quality work going on in university labs and the fact I am not providing detailed reviews should not be taken as a comment on quality.

Pedram Fatehi of Lakehead University provided the highlight in this area. This was a review of processes for grafting other molecules to lignin. The ideal pathway is an aromatic monomer from lignin, but this is technically and economically a long way off. While these processes are being developed, the ability to use lignin as it comes direct from the kraft mill will keep the lignin plants in Plymouth and Hinton running until new transformation processes are available and economically feasible.

Day 3, sponsored by CRIBE, focused on business issues and challenges in scaling up. David Mackett and David Flood, representing First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, told heartbreaking stories of repeated delays in getting community heat and power systems built. It should be obvious that the objective, of getting these communities off Diesel power, which benefits only the oil companies, and on to wood-based systems, which provide jobs and opportunities for residents, is critical, but politicians don't always see this. The issues facing First Nations were brought home by the presence in the conference hotel of the entire population of one such northern community, forced out of their homes by flooding. Hopefully progress will be made before the next conference, specifically on the stalled distributed heat and power systems as well as on the broader challenges facing First Nations in Canada.

Scale-up stories from Domtar, Iogen and several small start-up firms highlighted the pitfalls that await, even if you have a solid technology that is economically sensible. I was asked to talk about the pathway taken to get the LignoForce process from the FPInnovations laboratories in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, to commercial scale at the West Fraser mill in Hinton, Alberta; getting the technology to work, economically, was the easy part. The overall message is that it's challenging, and unexpected non-technical barriers will throw wrenches in even the best-laid plans.

Overall it was another good conference, documenting the extensive progress since the last one in 2017, but also the ongoing challenges still facing the industry. Hopefully progress, as measured by the number of commercial activities started up, will accelerate between now and the next one.

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