Are We Bio-Serious

Feed: 17 - Date: 6/4/2007 - Views: 1,486

Technologies for the production of biofuel are getting better and the forest products industry should be actively exploring the potential of biorefineries.

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by John O'Brien, Managing Editor

There has been a lot of press lately about the production of bioenergy-more specific to the forest products industry, the use of wood chips or byproducts from the pulping process as raw materials to produce ethanol or syngas. Although there a lot of talk about the forest biorefinery and its potential to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, it's tough to tell if the concept is being seriously considered by the manufacturers of pulp and paper.

With no real answer available to the aforementioned thought, let's start with one of the first questions most people ask: “Is there enough biomass available in the U.S. to really make a difference?”

Dr. Stephen Kelly, department Head of Wood and Paper Science at North Carolina State University answered this query in our March/April issue last year. He stated, “ a 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that determined there is more than 1.3 billion dry tons of forest and agriculture biomass available, on a sustainable basis, for production of fuels and energy. These 1.3 billion tons of biomass have the energy equivalence of 3.5 billion barrels of oil, which is about 75% greater than our current domestic oil production of 2.0 billion barrels.”

In addition, the wood-based fuels generate cleaner power at a lesser cost to produce. According to the Department of Energy, biomass fuels are considered “carbon-neutral” in relation to greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuels. The DOE also explains that the forest products industry could go from emitting 24 million tons of carbon each year to displacing at least 18 million tons of greenhouse gas from fossil fuels. This is before taking into consideration any carbon sequestration benefits from forests.

Not to get off-track, but for those of you, like myself, who are not up on environmental terminology, here's the definition for carbon-neutral: adj. Designating a process or product that makes no net contribution to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as by avoiding fossil fuels or by utilizing compensatory tree-planting program.

In this issue of PaperAge, we have a feature story The Pathway to Our Bio-Future prepared by ThermoChem Recovery International (TRI). It's a compelling overview of possibilities from the implementation of a biorefinery using gasification technology at a pulp and paper mill. The stage is set by the author pointing out that the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 set an objective of generating one billion gallons per year of transportation grade biofuels from lignocellulosic sources by 2015, and a primary source of cellulosic feedstocks is the pulp and paper industry-the world's largest non-food biomass collection system.

With every paper company's chief executive citing the high cost of energy as the number one culprit swallowing up revenues, the industry and its leaders need to look beyond the next financial quarter and examine their manufacturing operations and determine whether or not a biorefinery makes sense in the long-term.

I may not know much, but I do know this: our air quality and energy costs are never going to improve by burning fossil fuels, and I don't see the folks in the Middle East rolling back the price of crude anytime soon.

John O'Brien can be reached at:

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