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Back to earth.

All the wealth in the world, all that money in your pocket, is created from things we dig out of the ground or grow on top of it. This is a central fact of human existence that many people ignore or conveniently forget. We may have highly sophisticated computer networks and wireless everything, but they and everything else of value are, at base level, created from raw materials like oil, gas, water, minerals, agricultural products and, of course, trees. Our ability to manipulate these materials into ever more fantastic and value-added forms and our vast knowledge of how to use them has created an amazingly luxurious world for the privileged few--and I include myself among them--but human civilization is still, at its core, about digging stuff up and cutting things down.

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This is a long-winded way of getting to my real topic--the future of the forest products industry. As we all know, the industry is undergoing wrenching change as demand curves flatten (in some parts of the world, such as North America and Europe) and global economics dictate major changes in the supply chain. In North America particularly, it's hard to see the forest for the trees (pardon the cliche) because we are so concerned with what is happening to demand growth and our supply infrastructure. Yet for the very long-term future, prospects for forest products are quite bright. You or I may not be around to witness that new, bright future, but it's out there somewhere.

That's simply because the world is using up its nonrenewable resources at an amazing pace. Oil, for example, has driven the industrialization of the world for a little over 100 years, but we have already used up a vast amount of this resource, which took billions of years to create. Moreover, enormous markets like China are starting to use a lot of oil, leading to some of the demand spikes causing gasoline prices to shoot upward. Coal is much more plentiful than oil, but we still haven't figured out how to use huge amounts of it without choking our cities and suburbs in pollution.

I would venture a very unscientific guess that somewhere down the line, wood fiber--one of the very few renewable resources on the planet--will be a much more important resource than it is today. We use wood for lumber, paper, paperboard and little else today, but tomorrow, who knows? One of the more fascinating sessions at the recent Technology Summit II held in late April focused on the "Forest Biorefinery." I've heard this phrase used before, but I'll admit I didn't really understand the concept fully until I sat in on the "Extracting Value Prior to Pulping" working group discussing this issue. Well, I'll have to admit I still didn't understand it after listening to the discussion, but Tom Amidon of SUNY-ESF was kind enough to explain it to me.

The gist of the idea is that pulp mills could increase profitability as much as 25% per facility by commercializing enhancements that would make them function as forest biorefineries. This would create an industry based on underutilized components of wood to produce ethanol, polymers and basic chemicals, primarily through extraction and fermentation of hemicellulose. Not only would this help existing pulp mills stay profitable, it might serve as a way to tap into the vast amount of capital equipment and human resources being wasted at closed pulp mills.

Another working group, "New Value Streams from Residuals & Spent Pulping Liquors," focused on producing renewable transportation fuels (green fuels) from forest products industry residuals. This would create an entirely new industry product line from a raw material currently used for its heat value. In the process, it would move residuals from being low-value mill energy to high-value transportation fuels. Fuel conversion technology already exists for this process.

No doubt these visions are still years and perhaps decades away, but when oil and other non-renewable resources start to become scarce, the world will be beating a path to the door of renewable industries like ours. In the next 50 years, the forest products industry may become one of the hot growth industries in the world--imagine that. I just hope it doesn't get taken over by investment bankers in $2000 suits and cappuccino-drinking guys in pony tails. But I guess there could be worse fates.

Alan Rooks

Editorial Director

Contact Alan at +1 847 998-8093, or by e-mail at: arooks@tappi.org.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Rooks, Alan
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:740
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