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Could Biofuel Save Maine’s Timber Industry?
by Darren Fishell (Bangor Daily News) The company EMEP LLC wants to buy the shuttered East Millinocket paper mill to build a biorefinery that it said would be a centerpiece of a larger $240 million plan for biomass energy parks in the region. In a loan guarantee application to the U.S. Department of Energy, the company described the East Millinocket project visually as a prism through which raw biomass would turn into various shades of revenue.
Michael Bilodeau, a faculty member with UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, said ethanol production from older wood pulp mills dates back as far as 1905, with interest ebbing and flowing based on the availability of fossil fuels.
“It tends to happen when there’s a shortage of fuel, whether economic or political, that it’s justified to use wood for fuel production,” Bilodeau said. Oil prices have crept up but remain relatively low.
Eric Kingsley, a forest products expert and consultant with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, said he sees commercial biofuel production as a matter of when, not if.
“It’s clearly doable, and it’s the sort of thing that at some point will scale,” Kingsley said. “The question is, are we at that point?”
Competition with oil poses one of the toughest challenges for the commercial success of any biofuel operation. Finding markets for byproducts could be key.
That’s part of Stored Solar LLC’s plan. The East Millinocket biorefinery is a “centerpiece.”
In a promotional video for its plan to build bioenergy parks around some of the state’s defunct biomass generators, Stored Solar said it hopes to “[make] use of the whole tree, tapping into the greater value of diversified biomass products.” It plans to sell its waste heat and use charred wood byproduct to fuel biomass electricity generators.
Bill Strauss, chief economist for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and Maine Pellet Fuels Association, said liquid biofuels “definitely can work at the lab scale, but the critical questions are how much does it cost, how reliable is it and what are some of the byproducts.”
The technology — get ready for it — is called integrated hydropyrolysis and hydroconversion, or IH2.
By comparison, fossil fuels have very little oxygen to start, Wheeler (Clay Wheeler, a professor with the University of Maine’s chemical and biological engineering department who researches biofuels) said, making it easier to extract from them energy-rich and combustible hydrocarbons. And that’s the competition.
For biofuel production, the problem boils down to removing the oxygen from the mix as efficiently as possible. It also requires adding hydrogen back into the mix. There, Wheeler said, the IH2 process has an advantage.
The system isolates enough hydrogen to feed back into the first step of the process. It doesn’t need to import natural gas. For a site like East Millinocket, which does not have access to a gas pipeline, that’s a particular virtue. READ MORE