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Balance in the use of Biomass as a Fuel

Tuesday, July 30, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amanda Young
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'Cascading use': a win-win scenario for biomass

Charles Morris, of Pine Chemicals Association Inc, and the American Chemistry Council's Kevin Moran, highlight the importance of balance in the use of biomass...

In response to global climate change concerns, important new policies to advance the sustainable use of biomass resources have been initiated in many parts of the world.  In particular, the EU and its member states have developed a new Bioeconomy Strategy.[1] One of the key facets of this Strategy is the explicit requirement to increase sustainable biomass production and use in fuels "without compromising food security, adding pressure to primary production and the environment, or distorting markets in favor of energy uses”[2].  This policy is comprehensive, encompassing all valuable uses of biomass resources, including bio-based energy, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.  The policy is intended to be integrated within each EU member state as well to ensure that each member state’s unique mix of biomass resources and manufacturing base can be utilized to maximum benefit.

Of course, the utilization of biomass resources is not a new phenomenon. Wood and wood products, one of the primary segments of our available Biomass, were the original source of artificial heat and light, as well as the basis for housing, medicine, and a myriad of other essential uses.  Biomass is, and always has been, a critical resource. This increased policy focus on biomass is a welcome and positive development that will hopefully ensure Europe utilizes its biomass resources more efficiently and with fewer potential impacts on the environment, as well as generating fewer conflicts between bio-based industries, e.g., the recent "food vs. fuel” controversy.

My industry – Pine Chemicals – was at the forefront of the Bioeconomy long before the term was even invented. In the early days of sailing, pine tree sap was used to seal the hulls of ships and terpenes from pine trees have been used for solvents and medicines for hundreds of years. Today, one of the primary raw materials for pine chemicals is crude tall oil (CTO), a co-product of the pulp and paper-making process. CTO is essentially the sap of the pine tree, which is separated from the lignin and the fibrous portions of the tree in the pulping process.  CTO is collected and through a complex distillation process, converted into a valuable array of chemicals used in products like inks, adhesives, paper sizing, paints and coatings, and soaps and detergents.  Beta Sistosterol, a cholesterol lowering food additive, is another co-product derived from the CTO distillation process.

The success of the Bioeconomy Strategy in Europe is highly dependent upon ensuring that maximum value is derived from available biomass resources. In order to accomplish this goal, the strategy must include concept of "cascading use”. By systematically utilizing biomass materials for their highest value products first, further refining remaining co-products for their value and then utilizing any residuals for fuel the EU can meet increasing demands for bio-based chemicals, products and energy without disproportionately increasing pressures on our natural resources. This methodology of "cascading use” would positively reduce impacts on land and related services that EU member states provide to protect biodiversity and ecosystems.  

The Pine Chemicals industry is a prime example of the value of "cascading use”. As noted before, co-products from the pulp and paper making process are used to produce a number of valuable chemicals which are essential to literally hundreds of products. After the valuable chemicals are separated and utilized, the residual portion of the CTO is used as a fuel to produce heat and steam, thereby reducing our reliance on fossil energy. The industry is also continually engaged in research and development efforts to improve production and to find valuable new uses for the distilled materials. "Cascading use” makes business sense, serves the environment and the economy, and is therefore good public policy.

Properly employed, the "cascading use” principle will reduce many potential conflicts between competing feedstock uses. For example, countries in the EU are promoting the production and use of bioenergy by using biomass directly in fuels. This has led to a significant conflict that has yet to be fully resolved, the so-called food vs. fuel debate. The impacts to food production and price caused by the diversion of certain feedstocks for bio-energy have been undeniably painful for many groups. Other potential conflicts between bio-based chemicals, pharmaceuticals and possibly other industries could be avoided in the future by diligent application of the "cascading use” principle.

The biomass feedstock, CTO, utilized by the pine chemicals industry, can be burned as a fuel or converted into transportation biofuels. The pine chemicals industry supports the use of renewable energy generally, and in fact, the forestry sector can be an important biomass source for fuel. However, if significant amounts of CTO are used directly or indirectly as a fuel source, thereby limiting supply for distillation and further processing, the current uses for pine chemicals will be replaced by fossil fuel derivatives.  This, in effect, defeats the initial purpose for utilizing biomass as a fuel to reduce fossil fuel use.  Additionally, such a policy can negatively impact many jobs for workers engaged in the pine chemicals industry.

A well designed biomass policy can serve the dual goals of promoting bioenergy and expanding the production and use of bio-based chemicals and other products. By employing the principal of "cascading use” in the EU and its member states we promote a win-win scenario.  A Bioeconomy policy that promotes bioenergy at the expense of other valuable uses is at best a win-lose proposition which can severely hinder the advancement of utilizing alternative sources of feedstocks for fuel and transportation.

This September, the Pine Chemicals Association International Conference in Barcelona, Spain will offer several important papers addressing these issues.  The conference theme is "The efficient use of Pine Chemicals in the emerging Bioeconomy”.   More information on the Conference can be found at www.pinechemicals.org.

[1] Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe, 13 February 2012, European Union, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation,  ISBN 978-92-79-25376-8

[2] Ibid, page 10

Article by:  Charles Morris, President & COO of Pine Chemicals Association Inc.and

                 Kevin Moran, Director of Chemical Products & Technology Division with American Chemistry Council

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