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Bio-pathways Project

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Bio-pathways Project

Canada’s forest sector and the bioeconomy

When they visit a forest mill, Canadians expect to see certain sights. Timber waiting to be manufactured into lumber or panels. Buildings where the milling takes place. Neat stacks of processed wood waiting to be shipped out.

Then there are the sights Canadians don’t expect to see. A refinery that, in addition to traditional products, produces renewable fuels, plastics and chemicals for the pharmaceutical and food industries. A power plant that generates electricity for people’s houses. A site with little, if any, waste.

This is what many Canadian wood processing facilities may look like in the not-too-distant future. Mills that until now have processed timber or pulp and paper will soon diversify, adding whole new product lines. Canada’s forest industry is poised to enter the bio-age, a future in which wood fibre, or biomass, is converted into an array of products: electricity, fuels, plastics, solvents, lubricants, even food additives.

For an industry in transition after battling a tough decade, it’s encouraging to look ahead to a future in which wood fibre will have so many innovative uses. But are all of those uses viable? Will they bring investors a good return on their dollar? Will they generate jobs and keep forest-dependent communities strong? Are they consistent with Canada’s efforts to sustainably manage the forest? Are they good for the country in the long run?

Enter the Bio-pathways Project

These are the kinds of questions the Bio-pathways Project set out to answer when it began in 2009. The project called on more than 65 experts from different sectors, including finance, biotechnology and energy development, to do the homework needed to make sure the forest industry’s transformation is a successful one.

Initiated by the industry, the Bio-pathways Project has as its background the increasing interest in new uses for biomass. The project has been guided by the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and its partners, including FPInnovations and the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) of Natural Resources Canada.

Pathway: “a network of interconnecting neurons along which a nerve impulse travels” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

Bio-pathway: a network of interconnecting technologies along which the forest industry evolves.

Together, these experts are examining an array of biotechnologies and bioproducts now in development (many of them near commercialization) to see which have the most to offer the forest industry and forest-dependent communities. The project is pursuing six lines of inquiry and is evaluating options from three perspectives—financial, socio-economic and environmental—to make sure that the industry continues to satisfy Canadians’ needs in all three areas.

The project’s initial findings, which came out in early 2010, are eye-opening.

Promising findings

Partial results from the first three lines of inquiry are now available. So far the prospects look good for a marriage between the forest industry and the bioeconomy.

Early industry estimates suggest that the clean energy from forest biotechnologies could power 2.5 million homes. That’s one out of every five across Canada.

Yet bioenergy alone is not enough to transform the forest industry, the project found. To sustain itself in the long run, the forest industry must turn out a range of bioproducts, with higher-value items like biochemicals complementing lower-value bioenergy. Full diversification—that is, a mix of products of low, medium and high value—seems the most sustainable model. It’s a formula that has worked for the oil and gas sector, and Bio-Pathways results suggest it should work just as well for the forest industry.

Integration is another key to success. The project found that if a facility produces traditional forest products along with bioproducts, it yields more jobs and greater financial returns than a stand-alone bioenergy operation or a stand-alone mill. The key to renewal, then, is not to replace existing facilities with new ones but to integrate new technologies into existing mills. The project’s message: integrated biorefineries are the way of the future.

Other important findings so far:

  • The best technology and product mixes vary by region, depending on products available (pulp, sawmilling, bioenergy, other bioproducts), provincial policies (including energy policies) and hauling costs.
  • Making efficient and economic use of waste streams is crucial.
  • The lumber industry is central to the industry’s future competitiveness.
  • Industry needs to forge partnerships outside itself (e.g., with chemical and energy sectors).

Where does the pathway lead?

In the coming year, the Bio-pathways team will finish analyzing its first three lines of inquiry and will proceed with the remaining three. The forest sector should then have a detailed picture of the best options available, and a solid sense of the financial, socio-economic and environmental dimensions involved.

But the Bio-pathways Project is only the beginning. The right social policies and programs must be put in place to support the changes that will result in a sustainable industry. Governments, especially provincial and territorial, will play an important role here. Programs like the Transformative Technologies Pilot-Scale Demonstration Program, funded by Natural Resources Canada, are essential to turn the concept of transformation into reality.

As well, the close collaboration that has marked the Bio-pathways Project must continue. The project has made the inroads it has because of the diverse partners involved. The forest, biotechnology and energy industries, along with research institutes, the financial sector and government—all must continue to share the real-life input and real-life numbers that have made Bio-pathways a success so far. The forest industry’s pathway to the future could depend on it.

Social impacts of technologies

Looking at social impacts of existing and emerging technologies

A healthy forest sector produces not only financial returns for the forestry companies but also jobs and income for communities. Because both are important, a technology that provides great return on the dollar but takes jobs away from Canadians isn’t beneficial in the long run. The Bio-pathways team aims to identify the forest products and technologies with the most to offer in both areas.


Should the forest industry produce bioenergy instead of pulp and paper? Is it better to invest in wood pellets or synthesis gas? Should stand-alone sawmills be phased out in favour of integrated biorefineries?

To measure the financial and social effects of different products and technologies, the Bio-pathways Project relied on return on capital employed, and on labour and GDP “multipliers.” Multipliers are objective formulas that allow researchers to assess the tradeoffs involved with specific options, and to calculate socio-economic impacts. The result? Concrete answers to difficult questions like the ones above.

The best of both

Labour and GDP multipliers made it clear, for instance, that in most of the cases examined under BioPathways, the production of traditional forest products creates more jobs and generates more national income than emerging bioindustries alone. A pulp mill, for example, produces more direct jobs than a new wood dryer via gasification (a ratio of 4:1).

The Bio-pathways Project concluded that an operation that combines bioenergy production with traditional forest products has the greatest potential to generate both greater returns on investments and jobs. Integrating an ethanol plant into a pulp mill, for example, generates more jobs than a stand alone pulp mill. That’s good news for the industry, which can look forward to adding to its traditional offerings rather than abandoning them. And it’s good news for the hundreds of communities across Canada—most of them rural, many of them Aboriginal—that depend on the forest for their livelihood. These communities can only welcome a stronger job market and a more diversified economy.

More uses for multipliers

Labour and GDP multipliers have proven invaluable to the Bio-pathways Project. And their usefulness here has only reinforced how they might help the forest sector with other evaluations.

As the forest industry heads into the bioeconomy, there will be more questions to answer and more decisions to make about the many options available. Multipliers that measure social as well as financial costs and benefits will give decision-makers a solid, objective platform from which to proceed.

Environmental impact analysis

To determine which biotechnologies and bioproducts the forest industry should adopt, decision-makers have to consider environmental impacts. Because the environment is as important to Canadians as the economy or social conditions, comparing the environmental footprint of various options is a critical task for the Bio-pathways Project.

For this part of the project, Bio-pathways called on researchers from the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) of Natural Resources Canada. Their job was to analyze the environmental effects of different technologies and products at two levels:

  • The mill level—to help make decisions about where to invest
  • The product level—to compare emerging technologies and products with existing ones

Carbon footprint of biorefineries

To study environmental effects at the mill level, CFS is assessing the lifecycles of both traditional and non-traditional industries. Step one of the assessment is to do a carbon footprint analysis. This translates into assessing various types of biorefineries (e.g., ones that use different conversion technologies) and various configurations (e.g., ones that involve different feedstocks and products).

For the carbon footprint analysis to be accurate and useful, it must include every stage leading up to, and ending in, production at the biorefinery. That includes harvesting, collecting and processing the biomass; transporting it to the biorefinery; and converting it into products and energy once it’s there.

The next step, after the carbon footprint analysis, is to broaden what is currently the environmental analysis to include other environmental indicators, including sustainability.

Carbon footprint of bioproducts and bioenergy

Determining the lifecycle of different bioproducts and bioenergy is another component of the Bio-pathways environmental analysis. Again, the first step has been to examine the carbon footprint of different types of bioenergy (e.g., fuels, pellets) and different traditional and non-traditional bioproducts (e.g., dimensional lumber, carbon fibres). And again, for their analysis to be thorough, researchers must track every stage of production, from the forest floor to the biorefinery. The CFS will then look at the end life of some of these products, in order to analyze each product from cradle to grave.

Environmental analysis at the product level will make it possible to compare the lifecycle of forest-based bioproducts and bioenergy with equivalent products from, say, the oil and gas or petrochemical industries. Such comparisons, it’s hoped, will help researchers evaluate the environmental benefits of forest-based bioproducts.

Advanced conversion technologies

Woody biomass, whether it’s roadside slash, deadwood or industrial residues, needs to be converted from its solid form before it can be used for products such as biofuels and biochemicals. Of the conversion methods available, the most common is thermochemical, which uses heat to process the biomass. Burning logs in a woodstove is an everyday example.

For today’s forest researchers, two advanced thermochemical processes—gasification and pyrolysis—are attracting attention. These technologies have much to recommend them. They’re efficient, they suit the forest industry’s needs and they can help Canada reduce emissions.


Gasification is a process that converts a solid material into a gas that’s able to be burned. During the process the solid, which can be low-value waste material, is exposed to oxygen, air or steam, or a combination, at extremely high temperatures, above 700 degrees Celsius. The result is “hot gas,” which can be cleaned up and converted into the more useful “syngas” (short for synthesis gas). Syngas can be burned directly to produce heat and power, or it can be processed to make other fuels, polymers and chemicals.

Gasification is not a new technology. It’s been used commercially for decades, especially to convert fossil fuels, such as coal, into electricity. And although the use of woody biomass as a feedstock is relatively recent, gasification technologies for the forest industry are well along in their development.

The biggest technical challenge posed by gasification centres on how best to clean up the initial hot gas. However, research is overcoming this problem and companies are starting to produce usable syngas.

Montreal-based Enerkem is one such company. It not only produces clean syngas, it also transforms that gas into a range of fuels and biochemicals. The company is even converting old electrical poles into ethanol at its demonstration plant in Westbury, Quebec.

Other companies have arrived on the scene to design and supply gasification systems. Vancouver’s Nexterra, for instance, produces fixed-bed gasification systems that operate on wood residues. A biomass power system designed by Nexterra and General Electric was given the go-ahead by the University of British Columbia in February 2010. The system will produce renewable electricity and heat for UBC’s Vancouver campus.


Pyrolysis exposes biomass to temperatures above 350 degrees Celsius, without oxygen, and results in two products. One is bio-oil, a liquid fuel that can be used for energy or that can be refined further to extract specialty chemicals. The other product is char. This solid can be used as a biofuel (e.g., in the form of briquettes) or can be upgraded to activated carbon and used in filters.

Compared to gasification, pyrolysis is still in the early days of commercialization. Ensyn, in Ottawa, is one experienced operation that’s up and running. Besides producing bio-oil, the company extracts chemicals from the fuel that go toward a range of commercial products, from food flavours to adhesive resins. Another pyrolysis specialist, Vancouver’s Dynamotive Energy Systems, is field-testing bio-char applications with the Ontario government.

Supporting emerging technologies

The aim of the Bio-pathways Project is to identify the products and technologies most likely to lead Canada’s forest industry into the bioeconomy. Getting those emerging products and technologies out of the lab and into the real world, where they can be demonstrated and fine-tuned, is a crucial step in determining whether they are workable, practical and worth commercializing.

The federal government has launched three related programs to support innovative forest R&D, and to move that R&D along toward full commercialization.

The first, introduced in 2006, is the Transformative Technologies Program (TTP). The TTP encourages researchers from government, industry and academia to study and develop novel technologies that have the potential to transform Canada’s forest sector.

The second program, announced in the 2009 federal budget and operated under the TTP, funds demonstrations, on a pilot scale, of the most promising new forest products and processes. The TT-PSD program, as it’s known (short for Transformative Technologies Pilot-Scale Demonstration), will move innovative ideas developed under the TTP ahead to the pilot phase. That way, they can be tried out, on a small scale, in industrial settings.

Of particular interest are breakthrough technologies in biomass harvesting, biomass conversion, nanotechnology and next-generation forest products.

In the 2010 federal budget, the government announced a new $100-million program, Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT). The purpose of the IFIT program is to demonstrate and deploy new and advanced technologies in the forest sector through investments in innovative processes. Together with the TT-PSD, the IFIT program will help Canada remain at the forefront of developing new forest technologies—a key to creating prosperity, jobs and green products in the emerging bioeconomy.

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