Ups and Downs in the Ever Changing World of Bio-fuels

In the ever changing world of bio-fuel technology there are always twists to the story line. Soaring energy prices are thinning profit margins in the transport sector and increasing operational costs in many manufacturing industries. The shift in research and development has been to turning organic waste into bio-fuel, helping industry with a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable energy source to complement traditional fuel. Recently the plug has been pulled on at least one major bio-fuel project, while another project employing different, albeit similar, technology has been given the green light.

Shell-Iogen plant cancellation raises doubts about new bio-fuel technology

Ottawa-based Iogen Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC have killed a plan to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in southern Manitoba which would produce motor fuel from corn stalks. This is the second time within a week that Canadian companies have backed away from major investments in GHG emission-reduction technologies. Last week, TransAlta Corp. announced that it will not to proceed with a $1.4-billion project to capture carbon dioxide from an Alberta coal-fired power plant and sequester the gas underground.

The Globe and Mail reports that Shell-Iogen plant cancellation raises new doubts about a technology that governments have praised as being ready to make a major contribution to North America’s fuel consumption. Cellulosic ethanol has been publicized as the future of bio-fuels, allowing companies to shift from a reliance on food crops like corn and wheat to agricultural, forestry and municipal waste. The current challenge with this technology is the difficulty in efficiently breaking down the cellulose into sugars needed to make ethanol, and to handle the vast amount of feedstock required for a commercial plant.

Innovation Turning Wood Waste into Bio-fuel for Transportation

Montreal-based pulp and paper company Domtar is partnering with Battelle, an independent research and development specialist in Columbus, Ohio, to test a new technology that rapidly converts wood waste into crude bio-oil and gas. This new public-private partnership is set to drive revenue for the forest products industry in Northern Ontario.

The technology being employed in this project is known as fast pyrolysis, which applies heat without the use of oxygen to convert the biomass, in this case rejected wood chips, into bio-fuel. While pyrolysis is not an entirely new process, Battelle has changed the playing field significantly by designing smaller reactors that chemically and molecularly modify the oil produced to generate greater market value.

The project is aimed at capitalizing on the economic advantages of collocating smaller systems with nearby biomass sources. “Because it is small, it can easily be deployed in combination with other activities, so you don’t have to drag materials great distances for processing” explains Charles Lucius, vice president of Energy, Environment and Material Sciences at Battelle. The advantage of this technology is that it is not an overly capital intensive process and it is more energy efficient than more traditional bio-fuel technologies. This technology could also be distributed across a variety of operations and industries.

For the climate-related technologies to be commercial viable, governments have to introduce regulations or levies that put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Canada has done little to provide such a market incentive, and even major business groups have called for a more robust policy to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Despite all of this, industry spokesman Scott Thurlow said that it is too early to write off next-generation bio-fuels as a viable part of Canada’s clean-energy mix. In the face of all these challenges, bio-fuel continues to take strides in contributing to the energy market in a positive way.

Co-authored with Lee Axford, Student at Law