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Summer 2014 BioFuelNet Canada

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FUELING SUCCESS


BioFuelNet Canada

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A letter from BioFuelNet Canada’s Scientific Director, Donald Smith

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Greener heating for greenhouses

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Coal gets a facelift

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Novel reactor cuts waste to the bone

A new control system for biomass furnaces leaves greenhouses with a smaller carbon footprint

A new process for producing bio-coal reduces both carbon emissions and wood waste

A mechanically fluidized reactor makes the conversion of biomass into energy more efficient

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Better yield from yeast A progressive research team takes the age-old tradition of fermentation up a notch


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A LE TTER F ROM B I OFUELN E T CA N A DA’S S C IE NT I F IC D IRE C TOR Although BioFuelNet’s research program is not yet two years old, we are thrilled to be able to highlight in this report some concrete examples of the impact we are already having on Canada. Biofuels research has been conducted in Canada for decades, but thanks to the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program, BioFuelNet has brought together experts from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom previously ran smaller, more focused networks of their own, to collaborate on achieving a common set of objectives. It is only due to the groundwork that has been laid over the past years that BioFuelNet is able to achieve such successes so early on, but this foundation is unquestionably solid, and together we will continue to build on it in the future. The profiles contained in this report were selected to demonstrate the range of projects in which BioFuelNet invests. Among these stories, you will read about advancements in yeasts for producing alcohols, a new process for producing bio-coal from wood waste, and the latest technologies breaking down solid waste to a high energy liquid fuel. Each of these projects is working closely with industry partners, which means that once these advancements have been commercialized, Canadians will see the benefits right away. As we pass the mid-point of our first five-year grant period, BioFuelNet will continue to push for innovation that has an impact on Canadians, through cleaner air, a stable supply of renewable energy, agricultural sustainability, and good jobs. The present report really just provides a glimpse of things to come. Kind regards,

Donald Smith Scientific Director


BioFuelNet Canada

GREENER HEATING FOR GREENHOUSES A NEW CONTROL SYSTEM FOR BIOMASS

FURNACES LEAVES GREENHOUSES WITH A SMALLER CARBON FOOTPRINT MARK LEFSRUD, YVES ROY, FRANCIS FILION, JULIEN BOUCHARD, QUOC NGUYEN, LOUIS-MARTIN DION, ANTONY GLOVER BIORESOURCE ENGINEERING MACDONALD CAMPUS, MCGILL UNIVERSITY What’s not to love about greenhouses? With their structural transparency, lush vegetation, and moisture-laden warmth, greenhouses combine nature’s bounty with human

A BATTERY THAT KEEPS ON GOING

industry in an especially pleasing way. In cold climates such

Biomass, which means material derived from liv-

as Canada’s, however, greenhouses depend on a steady

ing organisms, is a renewable source of energy for two

source of heat. The high cost and environmental impact of

reasons: it comes from the sun, and it can regrow in

fossil fuels has led some greenhouse operators to look for

a relatively short period of time. Through photosyn-

alternative heat sources, such as biomass.

thesis, plants capture the sun’s energy by converting

Biomass heating systems are far from a panacea, though.

carbon dioxide from air and water into carbohydrates.

For one thing, the capital investment can scare away some

When these carbohydrates are burned, as in a biomass

small operations. What’s more, burning biomass in a furnace

furnace, they turn back into carbon dioxide and water

releases a substantial amount of heat and carbon dioxide.

and release the energy they captured from the sun. As

Enter the Biomass Furnace Flue Gas Emission Control System

such, biomass functions as a rechargeable battery for

(GECS), a process designed to recapture energy from the fur-

storing solar energy.

nace and redirect it to the greenhouse.


BioFuelNet Canada

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bon dioxide emissions,” says Dr. Lefsrud. Translated into bottom-line terms, this means both a lower heating bill and a lower carbon footprint. “End users may even be able to claim carbon credits,” he adds. The team’s measurements also affirmed the system’s safety: When the exhaust from the furnace chimney was pumped directly into the greenhouse, the air remained well within Health Canada’s air quality guidelines for acceptable levels of indoor gases and contaminants. “This project demonstrates that university research can yield marketable products,” says Dr. Lefsrud. BioFuelNet gave legs to the initiative, supporting graduate students to travel to conferences where they showcased the technology and networked with other scientists in the field. One of these students was Roy, who had a chance to present his work at the 2013 The brainchild of researchers at McGill University’s Department of Bioresource Engineering, including several graduate students, GECS is “a greener way to use wood pellets for heating greenhouses,” says Dr. Mark Lefsrud, the engineering professor heading the project. The system not only recovers heat and purifies emissions from the furnace’s exhaust, but recycles carbon dioxide back into the greenhouse. The GECS unit consists of a rigid box air filter coupled with two sets of heating elements and a catalytic converter. “The air filter removes the particulate matter in the flue gas, while the other elements transform the exhaust gases into less harmful gases,” says Yves Roy, a Master’s student who played a pivotal role in designing the system. The carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer, enhancing plant growth and increasing yields. Having grown up on a farm, Roy is keenly aware of the need to help growers run successful businesses while safeguarding the environment. “From a young age I knew that agricultural production is a constant challenge,” he says. “As I got older I became interested in finding solutions, which is what brought me to the McGill research team.” Once the GECS prototype was completed, the team tested it on the chimney of a wood pellet biomass furnace. The device passed with flying colours. “We confirmed that it improves the thermal efficiency of the furnace and reduces atmospheric car-

International Meeting of Agricultural and Biological Engineers in Kansas City, Missouri. “Even though some of the attendees commented on my strong French accent, they seemed to enjoy my presentation,” he jokes. Two things need to happen before the GECS goes to market: a patent and a unit suitable for commercial use. The McGill team has already applied for a patent, and intends to enhance the product to make it commercially viable. “We plan to build a control system into the unit to allow growers to adjust carbon dioxide levels,” says Dr. Lefsrud, adding that “the BioFuelNet community is helping us proceed to commercialization by connecting us to the right people and information.” Lefsrud has high hopes for the new technology. “Our piece of equipment could spur economic development in the agriculture and greenhouse sector and strengthen Canadian food security,” he says. It’s also very cost-effective: “The capital investment required for the GECS is far lower than for alternative heating systems currently on the market.” Roy shares Lefsrud’s enthusiasm. “Greenhouses are seeing a steady growth as they offer a way to control the environment,” he says. As weather patterns become increasingly fickle, greenhouses are set to become still more popular. “I’m confident our system will make it economically feasible for greenhouse operations of all sizes to use wood-pellet biomass furnaces.”


BioFuelNet Canada

COAL GETS A FACELIFT

A NEW PROCESS FOR PRODUCING BIO-COAL REDUCES BOTH CARBON EMISSIONS AND WOOD WASTE BAHMAN GHIASI, LINOJ KUMAR, JIM LIM, TONY BI, ANTHONY LAU, STAFFAN MELIN, CHANG SOO KIM, FAHIMEH YAZDANPANAH, AND SHAHAB SOKHANSANJ BIOMASS AND BIOENERGY RESEARCH GROUP UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA In the public mind, coal is known as the bad guy – the

ing support from BioFuelNet, the team has developed

fuel responsible for a third of the world’s carbon diox-

a new process for producing high-quality bio-coal from

ide emissions. But coal’s close cousin, bio-coal, holds a

lignocellulosic biomass, which is techno-speak for dry

great deal of promise in the renewable energy sector. A

plant matter. A bonus: the process reduces waste from

group of Western Canadian research engineers are plac-

the logging industry.

ing their bets on bio-coal as the next big kid on the alt-fu-

“At present, the forest industry in Canada processes

el block. If all goes according to their plan, bio-coal will

only 30 percent or less of the available forest biomass

soon supplant much of the traditional coal being used to

into commercial products,” says John Bennett, CEO of

heat and power the world today.

GBCE, explaining that “loggers generally only use the

The collaborative venture involves the Biomass and

trunk of the tree. They leave much of the remaining fibre,

Bioenergy Research Group (BBRG) at the University of

which accounts for up to 70 percent of the tree, to rot

British Columbia and a Vancouver-based start-up called

on the ground or to burn, which releases stored carbon

Global Bio-Coal Energy (GBCE). After considerable re-

and pollutants into the air. This wastage hasn’t escaped

search and testing, along with seed money and ongo-

environmentalists’ notice, says Bennett. “Public concern,


BioFuelNet Canada

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Photos courtesy of flickr.com and solvay.com

THE BIOCOAL ADVANTAGE Coal-fired power producers do not have to retro-fit their facilities in order to use bio-coal Bio-coal can be used “as is,” pelletized or briquetted Unlike raw wood pellets, bio-coal does not absorb moisture and can potentially be stored alongside natural coal Ontario has become the first major coal user to ban construction of traditional coal-fired electricity generation units

laws and regulations, and the increasing demand for new

matically lower emissions during storage.” The BBRG en-

forms of green energy led us to our solution.”

gineers have also demonstrated that their novel process

The BBRG/GBCE process creates bio-coal primarily from “hog fuel,” a mix of wastes and residues from saw-

cuts energy costs by 20 percent compared to conventional bio-coal production methods.

mills and forest harvesting operations. Pulp and paper

If not for BioFuelNet, the venture would very likely

mills traditionally used hog fuels to power their boilers.

have stalled in its tracks. In addition to catalyzing the

The material must be harvested, dried, ground, and tor-

partnership, the organization provided financial support

refied (roasted). It can also be densified into pellets or

at a crucial juncture. Several years into the research, “we

other forms, making it more usable as a tradable energy

were approaching a financial crunch,” Dr. Sokhansanj

commodity. The BBRG Research team is also exploring

recalls. The BioFuelNet funding that arrived in 2011 “en-

torrefaction of previously densified biomass. This tech-

abled us to continue our efforts.”

nology can be added to the end of existing pellet production lines.

GBCE, together with major investors, is busy setting

Additionally, the BBRG team is researching

up its first commercial plant on Watson Island. Set to go

new open storage methods in order to take advantage of

into full production in early 2015, the facility expects to

the water repelling properties of torrefied biomass.

generate 200,000 tonnes of bio-coal per year tailored to

The torrefaction process developed by the research team subjects biomass to conditions of extreme heat

client’s specifications to serve the existing and emerging markets in North America, Europe and Asia.

and low oxygen, says Professor Shahab Sokhansanj, the

Looking ahead, Bennett expects his company to con-

BBRG’s lead researcher. The process conserves more

tinue working with Dr. Sokhansanj and his BioFuelNet

than 85 percent of the dry weight of the original biomass,

research team. “We plan to improve the quality of our

while enriching most of the carbon and thus boosting its

bio-coal product to make it suitable for use in the steel

energy value. The net result is a bio-coal product with en-

industry – and continue to diversify from there.”

ergy properties similar to those of traditional coal.

Sokhansanj and Bennett also noted that Michael

With one big difference: Torrefied biomass is consid-

Weedon, Executive Director of the BC Bioenergy Network

ered carbon neutral. What’s more, “It contains very few

has played a leading role in introducing the UBC’s bio-

undesirable pollutants such as mercury, nitrous oxides,

coal research and GBCE’s commercial ventures to the

and sulfur dioxides,” says Dr. Sokhansanj. The long list of

business community and in networking with foreign and

benefits doesn’t stop there. “The product is odour-free,

domestic business interests.

moisture-proof, highly hydrophobic, and releases dra-


BioFuelNet Canada

NOVEL REACTOR CUTS WASTE TO THE BONE A MECHANICALLY FLUIDIZED REACTOR MAKES THE CONVERSION OF BIOMASS INTO ENERGY MORE EFFICIENT STEFANO TACCHINO, FRANCISCO SANCHEZ CAREAGA, CHARLES GREENHALF, FRANCO BERRUTI & CEDRIC BRIENS INSTITUTE FOR CHEMICALS AND FUELS FROM ALTERNATIVE RESOURCES WESTERN UNIVERSITY Biomass can mean many things: decomposed forest

cesses to transform renewable resources into chemicals

material, sawmill residues, waste from the agricultural

and fuels, with an emphasis on sustainability.” Beyond

industry, or municipal solid waste, to name a few. What-

R&D, “We seek to integrate our work into the existing pe-

ever its source, this raw material needs to go through a se-

troleum and petrochemical industries,” he says.

ries of complex steps to yield usable fuels. The search for

Right from the starting block, ICFAR aimed high. As

cost-effective conversion processes has stumped many

one of its very first projects, the research group set out

researchers in recent years.

to design and build a reactor that improves on current

Spotting both a need and an opportunity, BioFuel-

pyrolysis (organic decomposition) technology. The fruit

Net turned to Western University’s Faculty of Engineer-

of their labours, a mechanically fluidized reactor (MFR),

ing, known for its leadership in emerging green technol-

goes a large step beyond conventional fluidized bed py-

ogies. In addition to providing funds, BioFuelNet used its

rolyzers or auger reactors.

ground-level connections to help Western University ex-

In simple terms, the MFR blasts the biomass with

pand the reach of the Institute for Chemical and Fuels from

“temperatures of about 500°C in the absence of oxygen,”

Alternative Resources (ICFAR). (Pronounced “I see far,” the

says ICFAR’s director of R&D Cedric Briens, another found-

acronym suits the forward-thinking institute to a tee.)

ing member of the institute. Under these conditions, “The

BioFuelNet researcher Franco Berruti, a founding

biomass doesn’t actually burn, but ‘cracks’ into different

member of ICFAR who currently serves as its director gen-

chemicals.” Upon cooling, these chemicals produce hy-

eral, says the institute “develops technologies and pro-

drocarbon gases, liquid bio-oil, and solid bio-char – all


BioFuelNet Canada

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Photos courtesy of flickr.com

products with strong commercial potential. For example,

ers, while improving the environment and helping provide

“The liquids contain natural pesticides and antioxidants

healthier foods” – a classic win-win.

that can help farmers produce high-quality healthy foods,”

Next milestone: commercialization. If Dr. Berruti has

says Dr. Briens. The solid bio-char, in turn, can “condi-

his way, this will happen sooner rather than later. “Our

tion” soil and thus reduce the use of polluting chemical

philosophy at ICFAR is to move laboratory research to the

fertilizer. Perhaps most exciting of all, “Bio-oil is currently

real world as efficiently as possible,” he says. To this end,

being investigated as a substitute for petroleum.”

the group will spend the next year ramping up the MFR’s

People with a more technical bent will appreciate that

capacity from 20-40 kg/h to 200 kg/h. That mission ac-

“the design of our MFR allows for good heat transfer with-

complished, they’ll deploy the technology in a regional

out a solid medium such as sand, and eliminates the need

biorefinery at the Agglomération de La Tuque in Québec.

for fluidization gas,” says Dr. Berruti. From a bottom-line

“We could not have come this far without the expertise

perspective, the design translates into lower capital and

and support from BioFuelNet and our other sponsors,”

operating costs, because of the unit’s cooling efficiency

says Dr. Berruti. Among other contributions, “BioFuelNet

and gasless technology.

subsidized the salary, travel and conference costs for our

“Current pyrolysis technology is too complex and ex-

students and postdoctoral fellows, giving us the opportu-

pensive to be of practical value to smaller farms or co-

nity to showcase our research and technology.” Above all,

operatives,” notes Dr. Berruti. “The MFR puts biomass

what stands out for Dr. Berruti is “BioFuelNet’s ability to

conversion within reach of these smaller operations.” As

bring people together and create community.”

such, “It could become a valuable income stream for farm-

A SEA CHANGE IN BIOMASS Fuels can be produced from many types of biomass, and seaweed may be a feedstock with enormous potential. The basic concept of using algae as a source of biofuels has been known for many years, but it’s only now that the notion is growing, well, sea legs. The idea has several features to recommend it. For one thing, algae can be grown and harvested in large outdoor cultures. The harvested biomass, in turn, can be converted to algal oil. Researchers have managed to produce diesel and synthetic jet fuel from algal oil on a non-commercial scale. The remaining challenge is to make the process technically and economically viable.


BioFuelNet Canada

BETTER YIELD FROM YEAST A PROGRESSIVE RESEARCH TEAM TAKES THE AGE-OLD TRADITION OF FERMENTATION UP A NOTCH NICOLE HARNER, TERRI RICHARDSON, SUKHDEEP SIDHU, XIN WEN, MEHDI DASHTBAN, PARAMJIT BAJWA & HUNG LEE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH Since ancient times, humans have been using fer-

The Tembec alcohol plant in Témiscaming, Québec ex-

mentation to produce alcohol. As early as 7000 to 6600

emplifies this problem. The plant has been using a strain

BC, villagers in China produced an alcoholic beverage

of the common baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae,

by fermenting fruit and rice, while evidence of wine-

to ferment liquid waste from the pulp and paper industry

making goes as far back as 6000 BC. Also known as

to produce ethanol. The yeast does a fine job of convert-

zymology, fermentation uses microbes such as yeasts

ing the hexose sugars in the liquid biomass – chiefly glu-

to convert carbohydrates into ethanol (a.k.a. drinking

cose – into alcohol. When it comes to the pentose sugar

alcohol) and other substances.

xylose, however, the process falls short. If this constraint

In the modern era, ethanol has been given a new lease on life as a source of green energy, giving environ-

could be surmounted, the plant could produce as much as 25 percent more alcohol.

mental scientists more reason than ever to enhance the

Well aware of the problem, microbiologists have been

fermentation process. As it turns out, wood-based bio-

scrambling to engineer yeast strains capable of ferment-

mass fits the bill as a fermentable source of ethanol, with

ing both glucose and xylose efficiently to ethanol. Most of

one snag: common yeast strains acting on this biomass

them have focused on tweaking the S. cerevisiae strain to

cannot produce ethanol efficiently in sufficient quantities

enable it to ferment xylose.

to make the process sustainable.

A team of BioFuelNet researchers has taken a differ-


BioFuelNet Canada

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Photos courtesy of flickr.com

ent tack: improving the native pentose-fermenting yeasts

novations, GreenField Ethanol, Lignol, Mascoma Canada,

Scheffersomyces stipitis and Pachysolen tannophilus.

and Tembec, among others. The effort paid off in spades:

While these strains can also ferment hexose sugars, they

“We found that our genetically modified strains are more

have several unfortunate properties that limit the effi-

efficient in fermenting the sugars in the biomass than the

ciency of the process, says team lead Dr. Hung Lee, a pro-

native strains,” says Dr. Lee. Building on this success, the

fessor in the school of environmental sciences at the Uni-

team is currently using BioFuelNet support to further im-

versity of Guelph. For one thing, they’re highly sensitive

prove the pentose-fermenting yeasts.

to the inhibitory substances in the pretreated biomass.

Dr. Lee is the first to admit that the research would

They’re also susceptible to glucose repression, meaning

not be possible without funding support from several

that glucose can prevent the yeasts from fermenting the

sources, such as BioFuelNet and the partners who pro-

other sugars. Finally, they have a very low ethanol toler-

vided the industrially relevant biomass hydrolysates for

ance, so that even low concentrations of ethanol can stop

testing. Dr. Lee feels fortunate to be part of BioFuelNet

the fermentation process in its tracks.

which provides invaluable contacts and networking op-

To overcome these challenges, the team used genet-

portunities. “Such connections can make the difference

ic techniques such as random mutagenesis and genome

between a project stalling and getting off the ground,” he

shuffling in hopes of producing hardier strains. Next, they

reflects, adding that “getting the right people working to-

tested their strains on feedstock (biomass hydrolysate)

gether is how the magic happens.”

supplied by several partners, including BP Biofuels, FPIn-

NOT JUST FOR DRINKING One of the most environmentally promising uses of ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) is as fuel for transportation. Indeed, using ethanol instead of gasoline can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Ethanol also finds numerous uses in the personal care products industry. If you check the labels of common hairspray, mouthwash, aftershave and cologne products, there’s a good chance you’ll find ethanol in the ingredient list. Along similar lines, ethanol has found its way into a spectrum of pharmaceutical products such as cough treatments and decongestants.


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Success Stories 2014  

Detailing the successes of our network researchers in 2014.

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