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From Wood Waste to Ethanol Fuel

Biomass Canada sees those piles of wood waste in sawmill yards as potential feedstock for an enthanol plant. Their plan for a $35-million facility would result in the production of 17,000 gallons daily of this clean-burning fuel, using 25 tons of waste wood a day in the process.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

An Alberta company specializing in ethanol production technology is hoping someone in the forest industry is willing to take a chance on them, thereby potentially helping North America meet its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomass Canada is hoping to find a company willing to attach a $35-million ethanol plant to its sawmill or pulp mill. Their plan calls for the consumption of 25 tons of wood waste per day to manufacture 17,000 gallons of ethanol. Ethanol has recently become a popular commodity because it is a clean-burning fuel. In fact, the US-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) states that a 10 per-cent ethanol additive to gasoline will reduce the overall pollution from a vehicle by as much as 54 per cent.

Canada general manager Lyle Carnegie says that the technology is proven. It was first developed by American scientist Alan M. Neves, who established an ethanol manufacturing pilot plant on a garbage dump in Ogden, Utah, using municipal waste as his raw material. The plant operated successfully for four years. He ran afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, when he accepted an offer from the local municipality to use an existing building, situated on an old garbage dump, for his first commercial plant site. Methane seepage from the dump forced the EPA to shut the plant down, and Neves ended up $1.5 million in debt. But his method worked, and Biomass Canada purchased the exclusive Canadian distribution rights to it.

It was Carnegie's background in forestry and his love of grouse hunting that gave him the idea of using wood waste as a raw material for ethanol production. "I used to work in sawmills when I was younger, and always thought these sawdust piles were such a waste," Carnegie says. "While we were out grouse hunting, I came across one of those old sawmills. I dug into them (wood waste piles), and they still looked good, like they were sawn yesterday." He checked with the Alberta Forest Service and discovered that there is about four to six million tons of old wood waste abandoned at various old sawmill sites. The Alberta Research Council put him in contact with Neves, and their quest to build a wood waste ethanol manufacturing plant began. Carnegie found five other interested investors, and they formed Biomass Canada.

So far, they have managed to raise enough money to conduct a preliminary feasibility study. Engineering and management consulting firm REDD Technologies Inc. conducted the study.

"REDD Technologies Inc. finds, with respect to the proposed process, no apparent fatal flaw in the technology and the process concept," states the report, "and further finds the proposed process and application incorporates proven technology in a manner consistent with accepted scientific understanding and good engineering practice."

In terms of economic feasibility, the report concludes, "the proposed process scheme appears to have operational and market advantages and no deficiency as yet apparent to the author, which could not be overcome."

What Biomass Canada would like to do now is find a forest industry partner willing to spend about $750,000 on a detailed engineering study, to nail down the plant's cost to "every last bolt." The company believes it will then be a lot easier to attract the necessary financing.

"Everything about this process, outside of our pre-treatment process, is known technology," says Carnegie. "The enzyme production, the fermentation, the distillation, everything is known technology. It's a very simple process."

Right now, ethanol is produced from grain. Biomass Canada estimates that the purchase of grain adds about 35 cents to the manufacturing costs of a litre of ethanol, while the purchase of wood waste would add only nine cents. "We feel that grain is a feedstock that somebody could be eating," says Carnegie, "and we should be using wood instead."

While the company estimates that plant operators will realize about $10 million per year in gross revenue, it would take a minimum of 10 years for the plant to pay for itself. It could earn $7 million from ethanol sales, and a further $3 million from power transmission, generated from the methane byproduct that is part of the process. An Alberta power company has shown an interest in building a $10.5-million power generation plant that would produce 15 megawatts of power per hour from burning the methane.

So far, 100 Mile House, BC has shown considerable interest. That community faces the prospect of losing about 40 jobs when a local sawmill moves 65 km away. The ethanol plant would create about 40 permanent jobs and about 150 spin-off jobs. The only problem that 100 Mile House has encountered is an adequate wood waste supply. "But the City of Vancouver is hauling garbage that has already been sorted to Cache Creek, which is about a 160-km haul to 100 Mile House," says Carnegie. "So they wanted to know from us if we could mix sawdust with garbage. It doesn't matter. As long as it has cellulose in it, it doesn't matter if it is garbage or if it is wood."

The preferred location for the first plant is Fort Assiniboine, Alberta, because it is near the Athabasca River. The plant would require about 400,000 gallons of water per day. Biomass Canada plans to operate the plant so that it is effectively pollution-free. It will not discharge any effluent back into the river. It will generate distilled water, and the company has permission from Alberta Environment to discharge it back into the river as long as it is aerated in advance.

"When you put a ton of sawdust through this process, two-thirds of it comes out as sugars or ethanol," says Carnegie. "The other 33 per cent is solids which are mostly lignin and unfermented sugars." The company proposes to treat that 33 per cent with bacteria, which will create the methane byproduct. After it is digested, it is dried to about 10 per cent moisture content, sent to a pyrolysis chamber, cooked at 3,500 degrees, and turned into its basic gases. These are also known as synthesized gases, or "syngas".

"This is what gives you about 5.5 billion BTUs of heat in a 24-hour day," Came ie says. "And then you wind up probably with a half tonne of ash." The company even has plans for that. The University of Manitoba has developed a process of using toxic and even atomic waste to manufacture geopolymer blocks, "guaranteed not to emit anything for 10,000 years. We won't put anything in the water, we won't put anything in the air, and we won't bury anything. It's a total solution for municipal solid waste or wood waste."

Since the Kyoto conference, the company has received a much more favourable response from oil companies. Carnegie says that there have been several positive responses from oil companies for the purchase of their ethanol. What the company needs is a commitment from someone in forestry.

Part of the problem is the reputation weighing heavily on process founder Alan Neves. "A lot of people get scared off from Alan Neves when they find out that he is $1.5 million in debt," says Carnegie. "This was through his Biomass International Inc. So, this is why we set up Biomass Canada, which is strictly an independent company from Biomass International. The only connection that we have with Biomass International is that we have the exclusive Canadian rights to the process." Neves also sits on the board of directors.

Biomass Canada hopes that with a commitment from someone in the forest industry, it can help solve two environmental concerns - the problem of the accumulation of wood waste, and the concern about the adverse impact of growing amounts of greenhouse gases.

Wood waste to ethanol

Wood waste from sawmills can be used to produce ethanol, a gasoline additive that reduces overall vehicle pollution by as much as 54 per cent.

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