Summer 2014 BioFuelNet Canada
A letter from BioFuelNet Canadaâ€™s Scientific Director, Donald Smith
Greener heating for greenhouses
Coal gets a facelift
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
Better yield from yeast A progressive research team takes the age-old tradition of fermentation up a notch
A LE TTER F ROM B I OFUELN E T CA N A DAâ€™S S C IE NT I F IC D IRE C TOR Although BioFuelNetâ€™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
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.
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.”
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,
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-
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
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.
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-
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.
Detailing the successes of our network researchers in 2014.