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Forest bioeconomy, bioenergy and bioproducts

Biomass is a term for the biological material that comes from living or recently living plants, including trees—from their roots, trunks and branches to their bark, needles, leaves and fruit.

Canada’s forests therefore represent a tremendously abundant source of biomass. This is a significant advantage because biomass is a resource of rapidly growing importance in what many analysts refer to as the burgeoning global “bioeconomy.” Biomass is the basis for making renewable bioenergy, biofuels and other bioproducts that are increasingly replacing fossil-fuel based products.

The enormous potential of biomass for Canada’s forest products industry was analyzed in the industry-led Bio-pathways Project begun in 2009. Results from Phase II of the project were released in February 2011. The analysis clearly shows the promising potential of new technologies and bioproducts for boosting the economic sustainability of the forest industry in Canada. The benefits will come in part from using the by-products of traditional forestry processes to create new high value-added bioproducts.


Key sources of forest biomass

Forest biomass for use in bioenergy and other bioproducts comes from several sources:

  • residues or by-products left over from manufacturing processes
  • biomass plantations (for example, fast-growing willow or poplar species)
  • harvest residues
  • trees and branches removed during the thinning of forest stands
  • construction and demolition waste
  • trees killed by natural disturbances such as fire, insects or disease

The majority of processed biomass comes from the first source—manufacturing residues. The other sources, by comparison, remain largely untapped to date.

Uses of biomass

Forest biomass can be converted into a wide variety of products, not only traditional forest products such as lumber and paper.

For decades, biomass residues have been a substantial energy source for the forest industry, providing the energy to fuel the production of pulp, paper and lumber. Most pulp and paper mills, for example, use the residues left from the pulping process to produce heat and electrical power to run part of their operations. Other mills burn bark and similar wood waste for energy. In this way, substantial amounts of material that might otherwise go to landfills are put to good use.

Today biomass energy (or “bioenergy”) is of increasing interest as a renewable, environmentally friendly alternative to energy derived from fossil fuels. Through a variety of processes, biomass can be converted to solid, liquid or gaseous biofuels. Greater use of these wood-based biofuels could help ease society’s dependence on fossil fuels and, in the process, reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In addition to use in creating energy, however, forest biomass is being increasingly used to make a wide range of renewable bioproducts. These include industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, textiles, renewable materials, personal care products and other manufactured goods. Using biomass in these ways has the potential to generate higher value returns than when using it primarily to produce energy.

Work by Canadian researchers is now underway to develop new products and technologies to maximize the value derived from forest biomass along the entire forest industry value chain. Through initiatives such as the Transformative Technologies Program, being delivered by FPInnovations on behalf of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), these new innovative products of the future are being developed.

How important is biomass?

Canada’s forest industry is already making good use of biomass that is in the form of industrial residues. Energy produced from mill residues currently accounts for some 62% of the pulp and paper industry’s energy needs. Overall, the contribution of forest biomass to Canada’s secondary energy use has increased from about 3.5% in the 1970s to about 6.5% today.

Many other opportunities for biomass applications also exist, especially in the production of bioproducts such as biochemicals and biomaterials. In fact, the growth potential and projected market size for emerging bioproducts are much greater than for traditional forest products combined (such as pulp, lumber and newsprint).

Table displays seven bioproducts and their approximate percentage of the compound annual growth rate for the period of 2009-2015, and their global market potential in 2015 in billions of US dollars.

Global market potential for emerging bioproducts
Bioproduct Compound annual growth rate, 2009-2015 (approximate %) Global market potential, 2015 (US$ billion)
Green chemicals 5.3 62.3
of which Alcohols 5.3 62.0
Bioplastic and plastic resins 23.7 3.6
Platform chemicals (chemicals derived from biomass and used to make other chemicals) 12.6 4.0
Wood fibre composites 10.0 35.0
Glass fibre market 6.3* 8.4
Carbon fibre 9.5 18.6

* Compound annual growth rate for 2010–2015
Markets and Markets. 2009. Global Renewable Chemicals Market. 
The Freedonia Group. 2009. World Bioplastics. Industry Study 2548.
Lucintel. 2009. Global Glass Fibre Market 2010–2015: Supply, Demand and Opportunity Analysis.
Acmite Market Intelligence. 2010. World Carbon Fibre Composite Market.

Ensuring that the forest industry squeezes the maximum value out of every tree harvested is now seen as key to building and maintaining Canada’s international competitiveness. With its vast forest resource, Canada could become a major exporter of biochemicals and bioproducts as global demand for these increases. Producing such products along with lumber, pulp and other traditional forest products offers a significant way to maximize revenues and profits from the same amount of forest resource.

Opportunities and challenges in the growing demand for biomass

Demand for bioproducts is growing rapidly worldwide. This represents a major economic opportunity for Canada given the nation’s abundance of forest biomass and the forest sector’s commitment to transformation.

Another major potential benefit of biomass-derived energy is a reduced dependence on fossil fuels, which could lead to net GHG emission reductions for Canada.

To date, most of the forest biomass used to make bioenergy and bioproducts has come from the by-products of forest industry manufacturing processes. In this way, value has been added to what would otherwise be waste residues. But the increasing interest in bioenergy and bioproducts has also led to increased interest in expanding the supply of biomass available for use.

One idea receiving considerable attention is large-scale removal of biomass from the forest. However, from a forest management perspective, such an approach raises several concerns. For one, increased removal of forest biomass (for example, through more intensive removal of biomass from harvested sites) must be balanced against other forest resource uses—from timber harvesting and recreation to the gathering of non-timber forest products (such as maple syrup, wild berries and medicinal plants) and the provision of habitat for wildlife.

How such intensified removal might impact the long-term sustainability of forests is also a concern. Forests provide large-scale ecological services vital to maintaining the long-term health of ecosystems. Those services include nutrient enrichment, water and air purification, soil protection and carbon sequestration.

Canadian Forest Service (CFS) researchers are undertaking research to determine how much biomass, by species of tree and by ecosystem type, can safely be removed from forests while still maintaining healthy ecological functions. The information gained from studies now underway will help forest managers better understand the limits to biomass harvesting. It will also help managers determine the best approaches to harvesting biomass in a sustainable way.

Other areas of ongoing research include developing methods to grow forest biomass faster, harvest it more efficiently and improve systems to transport, process and store it.

Using technology to transform biomass

Today, CFS scientists are working with their counterparts in provincial and territorial governments, industry and universities to explore a range of biomass-related and biomass-derived technologies and products. For example:

  • Through the NRCan-funded Transformative Technologies Program, FPInnovations is supporting the development of promising emerging and break-through technologies and products such as nanocrystalline cellulose and cross-laminated timber.
  • At the Great Lakes Forestry Centre, CFS researchers are developing new biochemicals and forest biomaterials.
  • Through the Boreal Bioprospecting Initiative, the CFS is working with industry to identify new compounds that might have potential commercial use as value-added “green” chemicals.
  • In the area of biotechnology, the CFS is exploring a range of applications for improving forest regeneration, protecting forests through biological pest control, and conserving forests’ genetic diversity.
  • Research under the Bio-pathways Project is helping industry understand the opportunities that will allow them to maximize the value derived from biomass and identify new markets for biochemicals and other new bioproducts for the emerging green economy.
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