The biorefinery solution

Heather Lynch

Canada’s forestry sector is getting around in the world. Last month a delegation took part in the 19th European Biomass Conference Exhibition in Berlin. Designed to promote business-to-business relationships and to foster a spirit of collaboration between Canadian biomass/bioenergy producers and European organizations and investors, Canadian representatives were out in full force to showcase what our industry has to offer.

Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) made the overseas voyage with a defined mandate: to seek out partners looking to help transform Canada’s forest sector from traditional commodity products, into biorefineries. More specifically, on the discussion table was a “bio-trade equity fund” that would invest in biomass conversion plants across the globe and in related supply chains such as shipping and storage. This would have the added advantage of spreading risk more evenly by allowing investors the opportunity to stake their money in a single part of the system.

It’s pretty innovative stuff, and marks a critical shift in the way Canada has traditionally approached strategic investments in the pulp, paper and forestry sector. As little as five years ago, business and research centres alike were calling out for a concerted effort between industry, government and research institutes in order to tap the potential found in the biorefinery for much-needed rejuvenation in Canada’s forestry sector. It appears now that call is being answered and action is taking place. In 2006, Industry Canada released a road map report, noting, “as mills demonstrate the potential of the new forest harvesting and processing technologies and prove to be commercially viable, new, integrated, stand-alone facilities can be constructed to serve as traditional markets for wood and paper products as well as new ones for energy, chemicals and materials.” While bioenergy was once considered as an economical alternative for mills struggling to deal with crushingly high energy prices, that line of thinking has been turned on its head. We have come full circle and the production of clean energy from trees is considered, in some instances, to be the final product – not just an input. The positive externalities are not to be undermined, either. As Doug Hooper of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association aptly notes, “renewable fuels are recognized as the most effective and immediate carbon action strategy to lower greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.” Not a bad side note.

Canada’s forestry industry could serve as an ideal case study for the impacts marketing and packaging have on international perceptions of certain sectors. Gone is the language couched in despair and gloom, no longer to be found attached to the industry are descriptors such as ‘sun-setting’ and ‘rusted-out.’ Rather, the pulp, paper and forestry sector has been creatively positioned as an integral contributor to Canada’s knowledge economy, with room to spare for highly-skilled talent to flex its muscle. Opportunities spurred by biorefining have greatly assisted with this. A new lab and demonstration plant at AbitibiBowater’s mill in Thunder Bay, ON, is a prime example of this.

The Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), the government of Ontario and Natural Resources Canada, collectively coughed up $1.3M to invest in FPInnovations to operate the facility. The lab and demonstration plant will serve as a facility for companies across the country to extract lignin from their black liquor and have it tested, characterized and evaluated. The extraction of lignin offers lucrative opportunities to develop higher value end uses than those typically provided in the normal kraft recovery process. While research is still ongoing, possible uses for lignin include replacing chemicals derived from petroleum-based sources, and as an adhesive. The facility is considered to have dual functionality: it allows mills to continue to provide employment and opportunity in an era when so many have been forced to close up shop due to shrinking profits, while equally supporting the knowledge economy by emphasizing innovation and product diversity.

It has been too often said that if you build it, they will come. But when industry cannot reasonably bear the cost of a potentially risky investment, public support can ease the way. The federal Investment in Forestry Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, designed to support Canada’s forest sector in honing its competitive edge, offers targeted investments in innovative technologies. With a total of $100M to push out the door over the next four years, the program is specifically looking to harness technologies that lead to ‘non-traditional, high value forest products and renewable energies.’ No doubt biorefining will be a top contender for securing funds through this initiative. The program marks just one more example of the deep-rooted commitment and collaboration of government, industry and the research sector alike to move Canada’s forestry sector to entirely self-supported commercial viability. Canada is indeed getting around in the world these days. The best part? We’re giving them something to take notice of.


[1] Industry, Canada, 2006. “Towards a technology roadmap for Canadian forest biorefineries - Capturing Canada’s natural advantage.”