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Forest products biorefinery: technology for a new future.

Editor's Note: This series of articles is a result of the Forest, Wood and Paper Industry's Agenda 2020 program focused on providing technology for a robust and sustainable future. Summarized here is one of the six platforms of Agenda 2020--"Advancing the Forest Biorefinery."

Can new technology revitalize the U.S. pulp industry and, at the same time, help the nation solve its energy problems? The biorefinery concept may do exactly that. As discussed in the July 2004 edition of Solutions!, "Advancing the Forest Biorefinery" is one of the six technology platforms of Agenda 2020. This platform has been receiving significant attention since Technology Summit II for a number of reasons. An integrated forest biorefinery (IFBR) is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment into an existing chemical pulp mill, mechanical pulp mill or wood products plant to produce fuels, chemicals and/or renewable energy in addition to manufacturing traditional products.

Cellulose (which is predominantly carbon in terms of molecular weight) is the most abundant organic chemical on earth, with annual production in the biosphere of 90 billion tons. When measured in energy terms, the amount of carbon produced annually in plant material (grass, trees, flowers, crops, etc.) is equivalent to about ten times the annual world consumption of energy.

Renewable forest material is carbon neutral. Therefore, managed forests have enormous potential to reduce U.S. foreign fossil fuel dependence and greenhouse gas emissions by conversion of the forest material into liquid fuels, electricity and other products now derived from nonrenewable carbon. The U.S. forest products industry can tap this enormous, sustainable potential by evolving its mills into "Forest Biorefineries." This opportunity is very real because the industry controls much of the raw material needed to develop this new line of products, has at-risk mills due to competitive traditional markets, and has or will have access to the technologies required for implementation.


Many believe that future economics will no longer allow the conversion to product of only half of the log brought to the manufacturing facility. The time has come to get more value from the part currently converted to energy at relatively low efficiency or, in some cases, disposed of. The IFBR accomplishes this while not only protecting the ability to produce the core products of the traditional facility but also providing an ability to enhance their production. Arguments that support this belief include the following:

* The infrastructure of existing manufacturing facilities is geared to collecting and processing biomass.

* Too much of the Nation's wealth is being shipped overseas to purchase energy.

* Though the global climate change argument is far from settled, the use of a C[O.sub.2] neutral system for fuels and chemicals is good, cheap insurance.

* We must move to an renewable energy system to avoid major societal dislocations in the future.

* At a time of growing budget deficits, we are faced with the need to spend large quantities of money to improve the health of public forests, fight massive fires and transfer more wealth to rural populations.

The IFBR has the potential to turn these problems into opportunities on all fronts. Using pulp as an example, total U.S. chemical pulp production in 2001 was 53 million tons, utilizing as raw material 120 million dry tons of wood. In addition, 6 million dry tons of wood were processed into paper products by mechanical or thermomechanical means. There are approximately 120 chemical pulp mills in the United States. Many modern kraft pulp mills have an energy surplus. Thus, they provide an existing foundation to develop the IFBR. Rather than having to start a "greenfield" manufacturing operation, the pulp mill or wood products plant can become the nexus of the IFBR. Additional processes can be built (either as mill extensions or as "across-the-fence" operations) to generate electric power and to manufacture chemicals or transportation fuels.



The IFBR is truly a "disruptive" technology, one that breaks with the evolutionary pattern centered on traditional products and ushers in a totally new line of products. Manufacturing value-added products from the portion of the raw material that is not currently utilized, or is greatly underutilized, can significantly improve the return on invested capital at the facility. By improving the efficiency of how it utilizes its raw material, the industry can protect its traditional product line. Therefore, by making the entire base more profitable, the IFBR protects the core businesses of the industry.

Preliminary estimates of applying these concepts to the industry's pulp mills show promising economics. (See "Additional Resources" on opening page). Consider, for continuing this example, that 100 modern kraft chemical pulp mills convert their operations to a biorefinery. As shown in Figure 1, the net revenue from these 100 mills' traditional product, pulp, is ~US$ 5.5 billion. Figure 2 shows that new value streams are created when the pulp mill expands into a biorefinery. Figure 3 summarizes the added potential net revenue.

Before the wood is pulped, hemicelluloses can be extracted and converted to (for example) ethanol and acetic acid, generating potential additional net revenue of over US$ 3 billion. After the wood has been pulped and the residual pulping liquors gasified, there is a choice of turning the synthetic gas into power or into liquid fuels and/or chemicals. Conversion to power can contribute additional net revenue of over US$ 3 billion while the manufacturing of transportation fuels can contribute US$ 5 billion or more. The choice of which of these products to manufacture will be driven by economics of circumstances and/or location.

Existing pulp mills can significantly leverage their revenue stream by transforming into IFBRs. In addition, the goals of the IFBR are in excellent alignment with the mandates of several government agencies striving to improve U.S. energy self-sufficiency, environmental sustainability and security. No other basic industry has this vast potential and opportunity. Because of these factors, partnerships with several government agencies should be able to facilitate the demonstrations of IFBRs to catalyze their broad implementation as viable commercial ventures.

To develop and implement the needed technologies, Agenda 2020 has organized the "Forest Biorefinery" RD & D efforts into three focus areas:

* "Sustainable Forest Productivity" involves the application of biotechnology to sustainable forestry that will allow the management of U.S. forestland at a high intensity on fewer acres. A key focus is developing fast-growing biomass plantations specifically for the production of economic, high-quality feedstocks for bioenergy and biomaterial end uses. From an energy "lifecycle" perspective, these feedstocks will be superior to agricultural crops or residues.

* "Extracting Value Prior to Pulping" addresses opportunities from the time the wood is chipped at the mill but before it is pulped in the digester. A key focus is hemicellulose extraction from wood chips prior to pulping followed by their utilization as biomaterial feedstock and/or pulp additive. In the current mill, hemicelluloses are not effectively utilized.

* "New Value Streams from Residuals and Spent Pulping Liquors" addresses the opportunities to manufacture bio-products after the pulp digester. A key focus is conversion of biomass--including forest residues and spent pulping liquor (black liquor)--into syngas through gasification technologies. The syngas is then converted into liquid fuels, power, chemicals (including hydrogen) and other high-value materials.


The forest biorefinery concept creates a diverse group of potential processes and products (see Table 1).


Strategic Technical Goal: To bring to the point of commercial choice the technologies needed to evolve existing pulp mills into forest biorefineries that produce new biomaterials and/or export substantial amounts of renewable energy while meeting demand for traditional pulp and paper products.

Objective: By 2006, have in place one or more facilities that demonstrate the economical, commercial production of fuels and chemicals from "extracting value prior to pulping" technologies. Before 2010, have in place one or more facilities that demonstrate the economical, commercial production of fuels, chemicals and/or power from "new value streams from residuals and spent pulping liquor" technologies.

The U.S. forest and paper industry serves the world's largest and most demanding marketplace. The sunset of the fossil fuel era opens new opportunities for products made from renewable resources. The U.S. forest products industry has a unique opportunity to evolve existing pulp mills into forest biorefineries that produce new biomaterials and/or export substantial amounts of renewable energy while continuing to meet demand for traditional pulp and paper products. The very strong alignment of industry and societal goals makes it highly likely that an industry-government partnership will be continued to reach these goals, thus facilitating demonstrations of IFBRs as viable commercial ventures. It is rare that the interests of industry and society coincide so closely. Success of the forest biorefinery will help improve industry's profitability; it will also benefit the nation by creating a new source of secure, renewable and environmentally benign energy--thus preserving U.S. jobs and manufacturing facilities.

The U.S. forest, wood and paper industry and potential partners have a narrow window of opportunity. Decisive Leadership, trust in innovation, the willingness to seize the moment and the courage to change the very nature of the industry will be required qualities of the those undertaking this endeavor. The opportunity is here, and the time is now.

Sustainable Forest Productivity New/Better/Lower Cost Feedstocks
Wood Extraction Hemicelluloses, Sugars, Oils, Resins.
Wood Extract Conversion Ethanol, Acetic Acid, Polymers other
Wood Pyrolysis Resins, Wood Composites, Carbon
Wood/Black Liquor Gasification Syngas
Gas Conditioning Approach Tailored to End-Products
Gas Conversion Electric Power, Renewable
 Transportation Fuels, Methanol, DME,

Table 1: Potential Biorefinery Processes and Products--Concept


* A definition of the biorefinery concept.

* How it can add value and increase energy independence.

* What it will take to make the concept a reality.


* "A Cost-Benefit Assessment of Biomass Gasification Power Generation in the Pulp and Paper Industry", Larson, E. D. et al. October 2003.

* "Renewable Transportation Fuels from Biomass and Black Liquor", M. Hunsaker, E. Barlow, R. Johnson, D. Griffin, D. Briggs, L. Baxter, Department of Chemical Engineering, Brigham Young University, USA, unpublished data.

* Private communication from Adriaan van Heiningen, J. Larcom Ober Chair of Chemical Engineering, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, 2004.

* Private communication from Tom Amidon, State University of New York, Syracuse, N.Y., 2004.

* Case estimates developed by Ben Thorp, Georgia-Pacific, with input from Larry Baxter, Adriaan van Heiningen and Tom Amidon, 2004.

* "Biofuels for Transport--An International Perspective", International Energy Agency, April 2004.




Del Raymond is director of strategic energy alternatives for Weyerhaeuser Co., Federal Way, Washington, USA and chairman of the Agenda 2020 CTO Committee. Contact him by email at

Gerard Closset, an industry consultant, is session chairman, "Value from Spent Pulping Liquors," Agenda 2020, Technology Summit II. Contact him by email at:
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Title Annotation:Technology Summit II
Author:Closset, Gerard
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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