Back to the Future: Substituting Wood for Oil with the “Forest Biorefinery”

Forestry Dean Jack Saddler forecasts a seismic charge in agricultural and forest industries - photo by Darin Dueck
Forestry Dean Jack Saddler forecasts a seismic charge in agricultural and forest industries – photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 1 | Jan. 4, 2007

By Jack Saddler
Professor of Forest Products Biotechnology and Dean

and Warren Mabee
Research Associate, Dept. of Wood Science, Faculty of Forestry

Currently, 97 per cent of the North American transport sector runs on petroleum, with ethanol derived from corn and wheat accounting for the majority of the remaining two to three per cent. However, in the next five to 10 years, it is projected that new technologies will allow liquid biofuels — like ethanol or butanol — to be produced economically from biomass such as agricultural and wood residues. This could signal a seismic change for Canada’s and the world’s agricultural and forest industries.

Over the last year or two, there has been a huge surge of interest in biofuels and other forms of bioenergy. Although oil prices have fallen somewhat over the last month or so, they remain relatively high, influencing everything from personal to national budgets. It is certain that uncertainty will continue for oil prices, due to the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East oil-rich countries and the vulnerability of other critical oil producing regions to extreme weather events.

Governments in Europe, North America and Asia have embraced biofuels and bioenergy to in part address social and economic concerns over global energy supplies. For example, Sweden has a national target of being fossil-fuels free by 2020, with bioenergy (including the importing of wood pellets from B.C.) playing a key role in attaining this target.

Similarly, roadmaps developed in the U.S. have assessed that country’s potential for biomass growth and biofuel production, and found it may be possible to offset the almost one billion dollars a day the U.S. currently spends on imported oil. The U.S. Dept. of Energy has forecast total ethanol production from corn and cellulose to be about 40-56 billion litres annually by 2030. While this would be equivalent to about 30 per cent of global ethanol production it is still less than 10 per cent of projected U.S. demand. President Bush’s Advanced Energy Imitative, announced in his 2006 State of the Union address, increased research funding for cellulosic ethanol, with the goal of making it cost competitive with corn-based ethanol by 2012.

Over the past few years, UBC has been fortunate in obtaining federal and provincial support to establish a world class Clean Energy Research Centre based in the Faculty of Applied Science, while the Faculty of Forestry has received about $2.5 million to establish a Process Development Unit (PDU) to assess the potential of wood-based biofuels and chemicals. Our group also acts as the Task Leaders for the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) network, coordinating the technical and policy issues influencing the global commercialization of liquid biofuels from biomass.

In August 2006, The Forest Products Biotechnology group at UBC organized a meeting which hosted more than 130 experts from around the world to discuss bioenergy development. Senior experts from North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa each brought their own unique perspectives to the table and helped define the technical and political challenges and significant opportunities that the current and future biofuels and bioenergy sectors will face. One clear outcome of the meeting was that there are significant opportunities that new biofuel and bioenergy technologies can provide in terms of social, economic, and environmental returns.

The ongoing Mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreak, projected to cumulatively impact almost 1 billion cubic metres of lodgepole pine in the province of British Columbia by 2013, served to provide a focus for the meeting. An outbreak of this size is unprecedented in recorded history. There is an accumulating surplus of standing deadwood in our forests, which increases the danger of catastrophic fires and reduces the merchantable volume of the working forest. While we will try to recover as much of the beetle-killed wood as possible in the short term for structural applications, we know that wood impacted by MPB loses its value as timber over time, and so wood that has been standing dead for extended periods cannot be processed into lumber, pulp or other advanced wood products. In the longer term, development of bioenergy applications may provide us with a cost-effective product that justifies harvesting and replanting activities. For example, if only 25 per cent of the MPB-killed wood was converted to ethanol, it could supply between five and ten years worth of BC’s gasoline requirements.

For the global forest industry, moving away from fossil fuels is an economic necessity, as volatility associated with fossil fuels has resulted in high energy costs for the industry in recent years. There is a need to extract additional values from our forest resource, and a need to accept ecosystem realities in forest industry practices. Biofuels and bioenergy, which are inherently carbon-neutral and work within the carbon cycle, represent a new model of business which all types of industry could follow.

UBC is carrying out research which addresses some of the key challenges associated with increased biofuels and bioenergy consumption. Some of these challenges are technical and require investment in research, development and demonstration (RD&D). Moreover, a number of technological platforms for biofuel production exist and each should be explored to compare their effectiveness and their ability to produce value-added co-products. In all cases, the use of wood for biofuel production should be linked to bioenergy and bioproduct generation, creating a ‘biorefinery’ with multiple outputs. The biorefinery concept provides maximum economic and environmental returns by efficiently utilizing all components of the wood.

Some of the major challenges will be political, rather than technical. In the short term it will be necessary to increase the financial incentive for using electricity or fuels derived from biomass. In Canada, the cost of electrical power is low enough that bioenergy generation facilities have difficulty in competing. Policies might also be applied to encourage the development of bioenergy production in existing forestry and agricultural processing facilities, such as an accelerated capital-cost write-off schedule. One recent development is the emergence of mandates for biofuel use as seen in Europe, where 5.75 per cent of fuels must be renewable by 2012, as well as in the United States (five per cent by 2012) and Canada (five per cent by 2010).

The size of the biofuel and bioenergy opportunity in Canada is huge and biorefinery technologies can and will bring about major changes to the sustainable energy future for our nation. These technologies have the potential to add long-term, sustainable jobs in rural, urban, and aboriginal communities. What is needed now is continued collaboration to create technical platforms for effective and sustainable use of bioenergy, and a strong political will for putting these platforms to work.

For more information contact Warren Mabee ( or Jack Saddler (