Reflections on Developments in the Biorefinery Industry: 4th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference
by Stefaniya Becking (Advanced Biofuels USA) The 4th Nordic Wood Biorefinery conference held in Helsinki, Finland (October 23-25, 2012) brought together over 300 people from around 30 countries. The organizers successfully achieved the goal of having a stimulating event with solid representation from industry as well as from academia.
As unlikely as it may sound, on the first day of the conference, I was learning about string theory as it applies to the fundamental structure of trees and a wood cell walls. Philip Turner, Director of the Forest Products Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University presented research findings supporting the hypothesis that self-assembly of biological materials (for example, cellulose in wood) and inorganic materials (for example, atoms of zinc) is driven by fundamental geometric (fractal) structure of space-time. Looking at a photograph depicting a fern leaf, the pattern formed by atoms of zinc on their own (and not the actual fern growing in soil) sharpened my sense of the limits of our knowledge.
Yet, in the very next talk, the sense of our limited understanding of nature did not appear to be of concern.
In that talk, Marja Ruohonen-Lehto, Senior Advisor at Finish Environment Institute, updated the audience on the status of genetically engineered forest trees as a biorefinery raw material. The need to swiftly meet the rising demand for resources due to population growth has been the motivation for work related to genetically modified forest. The speaker reported that “no negative GE [genetically engineered] tree specific ecological or health effects have been found” based on 700 field trials with more than 10 tree species in the span of 15 years. Further, the speaker suggested that it appears to be safe to use genetically modified forest. But I wonder whether these trials should last for 15 years or for 115 years to gain the “no negative effects” confidence.
In this juxtaposition of talks, it was astonishing to see how little we know, yet how eager and unafraid we can be to alter the nature’s code (DNA) for our purposes.
In the context of tweaking nature to suit our purposes, it was curious to hear Petri Lehmus, VP of Research and Development at Neste Oil. He gave an update on the joint project between Neste Oil and Aalto University aiming to convert some of the by-products from production of Neste’s renewable diesel (estimated to be ~40% of the renewable raw materials) into harvestable oil within the fungal cells. While experimenting with production of this microbial oil to use as a fuel, the group found that the natural strains of microbes were more robust and resilient compared to genetically modified strains.
Of course, unintended consequences may sneak up not only when tweaking the biological side of biorefineries, but also when manipulating economic side of biorefineries through regulations. From the economic perspective, I was a bit surprised to hear the views of bio-chemical companies on government subsidies for biofuels (one of the many potential outputs of a biorefinery).
For example, Anna Holmberg, Sustainability Policy Director at Arizona Chemical advocated that users of the same resource should be competing on equal footing without government incentives.
Given current policy in the European Union, biofuels have the advantage of a subsidy. This differential treatment among outputs of a biorefinery artificially skewed the market for feedstock, in particular, crude tall oil (a co-product of kraft pulping). Anna Holmberg argued that even though biochemicals produced by Arizona Chemical from crude tall oil are “greener products” (longer life cycle), suddenly biofuel produced from crude tall oil became economically as viable as biochemicals from crude tall oil. Christian MacIver, General Manager at Pine Chemicals at MeadWestvaco echoed the same thought: if government is willing to support bioeconomy then a biorefinery needs to be supported as a whole system not piece-meal.
Employing systems thinking, I wonder what does a biorefinery mean? An even more pressing question in my mind: what does a sustainable biorefinery mean?
One concise definition I heard at the conference stated that a biorefinery is the sustainable processing of biomass into marketable products (food, feed, materials, chemicals) and energy (fuels, power, heat). The definition is flexible, so is the array of possible products and energy forms. For instance, one can convert a pulp and paper plant into a biorefinery (common theme of the conference). As part of this biorefinery, one can extract high-value compounds such as synthetic vanillin from lignin, manufacture bio-plastics from forestry residues and even co-produce tropical fish tilapia using by-products like warm water and nutrient rich wastewater (a theoretical option presented by Clas Engstrom, Managing Director at Processum).
But I still wonder, if to be truly sustainable the scale has to explicitly be a part of the definition.
Take the smallest scale: if I grow my own garden (biomass) then I can convert that biomass into products (food, feed, materials, chemicals) and energy for my family and maybe for a small community around me without needing extended infrastructure for packing and transporting my inputs and my products. At a family or small community scale, one is intrinsically motivated to care about soil health (a key for sustainable biomass production) and encourage bio-diversity (another key for sustainable use of land).
Is that a more sustainable scale than an industrial scale that requires extended packing and transportation infrastructure and that intrinsically struggles to encourage bio-diversity and soil health? In other words, it is difficult to swallow the idea that producing 3,000 tons a year of tilapia as part of a biorefinery is indeed sustainable in the large context of soil, plant, animal and people health.