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Biorefinery targets energy in forest waste (10/05)

Hidden within Northern Ontario’s boreal forest is a wealth of potential energy known as biomass. Advanced Biorefinery Inc.

Hidden within Northern Ontario’s boreal forest is a wealth of potential energy known as biomass.

The plant will be capable of processing 50 dry tonnes of biomass into usable energy, according to proponents.

Advanced Biorefinery Inc. (ABI) has a leading-edge technology called dry distillation that turns biomass into bioproducts, creating an untapped energy market in Canada that is renewable and ecologically friendly.

Dr. Peter Fransham, president of the new company, received almost $800,000 in government funding to manufacture a 50-dry-tonne-per-day biorefinery to be used in Ontario’s rural areas and forests.

The concept of converting biomass to bioliquids dates back to the early Egyptians, according to Fransham. During World War II, it was used as a source of wood methanol and acetic acid, but over the years, science has modernized this old process. Now, Fransham has developed and refined the system to work on a larger scale.

The process involved takes low-valued or diseased wood that remains after logging, captures the products that would normally be released from a burning log by shattering its structure in an extremely hot and oxygen-depleted environment.

“We’re condensing them (wood) like steam into a liquid which can then be transported to a factory,” Fransham says. “It looks like a cross between dark coffee and molasses, and has a strong smoky odour.”

The liquid can be burned like oil to provide energy.

The biomass fed into the system converts roughly to 60 percent bioliquid and 40 percent charcoal and gas, both of which are used to run the system. Although the recovery rate is not 100 percent, its ability to be transportable and set up in remote areas where the biomass is located makes it appealing, since it is not economical to haul the low-value wood out of the forests.

With the unit running 24/7, it requires eight to 10 operators producing approximately 6,000 gallons (24,000 litres) of bioliquid per day, enough to fill two tanker trucks. The energy produced provides enough electricity for 1,500 to 2,000 homes.

Ideally, Fransham would like to see 1,000 biorefineries set up across Northern Ontario where the bioliquid can be pipelined to central energy-producing facilities, much like Alberta’s interconnected system of pipelines from oil wells to the refineries.

Presently, they are optimizing the liquid strictly for energy use, although as the technology develops, Fransham foresees the designs changing to capture different chemicals for other potential markets.

“The bioliquids business is very much where the oil industry was back in the late 20s,” he says.

“We’re still at the embryonic stage of being able to know what it can be used for other than to burn.”

Furthermore, the biorefinery is an opportunity to create alternative energy for the forest products industries, which tend to be large consumers of energy.

“Rather than leaving low-value wood in the forest, they could consider harvesting the biomass, use it as an energy source and optimize their harvest techniques, so they can generate renewable energy at the same time,” he says.

A chicken farm in Alabama has successfully completed a pilot project with a one-tonne dry waste unit that converts chicken manure (comprised of bedding and waste) into liquid energy.

In turn, the farmer uses it to heat the chicken houses. It not only reduces the energy costs, but it also provides an economical use for the effluent, which can be a problem as farms grow larger.

Though the current focus for the ABI is on biomass in forests, it can take any organic feedstock such as grasses, trees, agricultural waste or municipal waste. Thus, the potential to expand the industry leaves the doors open for a whole bioenergy industry that is ecologically friendly to the environment, uses renewable resources and lessens the dependency on fossil fuels.