Turning plant waste into fuel

Ethanol out of wood chips may be Manitoba’s best solution, experts say

Melody Morrissette

Amid growing concern with the feasibility of conventional ethanol, a new type of biofuel is emerging onto the Canadian scene – and sweeping prairie provinces by storm.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from the otherwise throw-away parts of plants, including wood chip waste from the logging industry, grass and the stocks of food-producing agricultural plants.

But Canada is only in the preliminary stages of exploring this new option.

“It hasn’t been invented yet, that’s how new it is,” said Ernest Nycz, president and CEO of Prairie Green Renewable Energy Inc.

Prairie Green, a Saskatchewan-based company, is entering into an agreement with the South Dakota-based K.L. Energy to create Canada’s first cellulose ethanol plant.

The University of Manitoba is in the early research stages of cellulosic ethanol, said Gary Johnson, professor in the department of agribusiness and agriculture economics at the University of Manitoba.

“Nobody’s very far along,” although some institutions are working on small-scale pilot projects to produce cellulosic ethanol, he said.

There may be several benefits to this new type of ethanol.

“Cellulose has advantages in that it’s not using the grain, therefore it isn’t competing with the food value of the crop,” Johnson said.

We really don’t have much choice… if we want to replace petroleum.

Adrian Tsang, Concordia University

Because the edible part of plants is not needed to create this type of fuel, plants could be harvested for food, while remaining bailed straw can be used for cellulosic material.

This could ease the crisis of growing food prices worldwide, said Adrian Tsang, director of Concordia University’s Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics.

The Centre has been chosen as the lead academic institution in the Cellulosic Biofuels Network, a federal government-funded research initiative into cellulose-based ethanol.

Using plants’ organic leftovers to create fuel is also more energy efficient than current ethanol practices.

Its production uses significantly less resources than corn-based ethanol, which requires a significant amount of water and nitrogen.

Yet the full environmental benefits of cellulosic ethanol cannot be determined without large-scale implementation, Tsang said.

“The prediction looks great, but we need to go into practice,” he said. “It’s not a simple equation.”

Success will depend on a number of variables such as location, method of production and efficiency of individual plants.

Implementation should therefore be carefully devised and not rushed into, Tsang added.

“We don’t know what all the ramifications are… We need to think carefully before we move ahead.”

Johnson warns there may in fact be negative environmental results to cellulosic ethanol.

Harvesting an entire grain plant for cellulosic ethanol means clearing it from the field, where it would otherwise stay for a longer period, removing carbon from the environment.

But Tsang said we need to look past the many unknowns around cellulose-based biofuel. We don’t have any other options in terms of creating a sustainable transportation fuel, he said.

The infrastructure for electric cars does not exist, while energy cannot realistically fuel vehicles – a liquid fuel is needed, Tsang said.

“We really don’t have much choice… if we want to replace petroleum.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 26, 2009)

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