Biofuel processing kicked up a notch

A smoky flavouring could be the new sexy biofuel of the future.

Randal Goodfellow, senior vice-president of corporate relations for Ottawa-based biofuel firm Ensyn, pitched his product to conference attendees at Biofibe 08 in Winnipeg and welcomed potential partnerships.

Using a mix of biomass products, such as wood, flax shives or corn, and a process called pyrolysis, the company is creating a bioliquid from which it can extract a variety of chemicals. Right now, the chemical making the money used to fund ongoing product development is a “liquid smoke” flavouring that gives meats a smoky taste.

The technology to produce it was developed at the University of Western Ontario in the 1980s. “If you’ve had ham, you’ve had the product,” Goodfellow said.

Another product is being used for boilers and other industrial applications. “In a sense, it is liquid biomass,” he said.

The next thrust is to make renewable transportation fuels such as green gasoline and green diesel. The molecules produced are identical to gasoline and diesel. That means the current infrastructure for fuel distribution would need no alterations. Nor would current vehicles on the road need to be retrofitted to use the clean-burning oil.

Goodfellow is extremely optimistic and is not anticipating any major challenges. The oil is greenhouse gas neutral, he said, and is produced when biomass is rapidly heated in the absence of oxygen.

So why don’t we have it in the pumps now? “It’s not commercially available until 2011,” he said.

There are some issues to work out, he said, including the establishment of many of these processing plants. The best place for them is to be set up near feedstock supplies, he added.

Big oil companies are happy with this product, he said, because they will be able to use the technology while protecting their interest in providing fuel to customers.

“All of a sudden it’s a technology that allows the oil companies, the ones that do the refining, to be in the game on their own terms using their own technology and infrastructure,” he said.

It is a win for the environment, for big oil companies and opportunities for agriculture.

Feedstock could become “a bit of an issue,” he said, as facilities that now process 1,000 bone-dry tonnes of biomass per day are being designed to process 1,500 bone-dry tonnes per day.

But he hopes the company will be able to use feedstock from residual material, such as wood from houses being torn down. As well, he said, it will use residual agricultural biomass – not the parts of the plant used to make food. Because the product won’t compete for food acres, Goodfellow sees wide acceptance of the technology. The plan is to use residual material from the forestry sector as well.

Goodfellow is presenting his product at conferences and to many government agencies to make them aware the technology is just around the corner.

“I’m not sure the policy world has caught up with it yet,” he said.

When it does, the impact could be significant. Manitoba Hydro senior biosystems engineer Deny St. George said while there are issues to be worked out, they won’t be insurmountable.

“The bio-oil concept fits nicely into our existing infrastructure and doesn’t impact the food side of the equation like grain-based ethanol or biodiesel. All kinds of feedstock materials can be utilized and the capital costs for pyrolysis plants should be much lower than ligno-cellulosic ethanol plants.”

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