Nov. 9, 2011, BC - Fuel made from wood could become a competitive commercial alternative
to fuel made from corn by 2020 if the wood biofuel industry is
supported, according to a new University of British Columbia study.
Corn ethanol is currently blended with gasoline to satisfy
government-mandated targets to include renewable content in
transportation fuel. Compared to corn, wood-based biofuel is considered
more sustainable but is not currently produced in large commercial
quantities in Canada and the United States because the costs are too
The study, published in the most recent issue of the journal Biofuels Bioproducts & Biorefining,
identifies several opportunities for reducing these costs. Researchers
in UBC’s Faculty of Forestry found that large-scale commercial
production of wood-based ethanol, also known as cellulosic ethanol, will
reduce capital and operation costs and assist in achieving the
improvements necessary for wood-based ethanol to compete, without
“As industrial production increases, cellulosic ethanol is likely to
become more competitive with corn ethanol for a share of the renewable
fuels market,” says Jamie Stephen, a PhD candidate at UBC and lead
author of the study.
Stephen’s research indicates that the economic competitiveness of
wood-based ethanol fuel production could be improved by reducing the
capital costs of facilities and equipment, reducing enzyme costs and
generating revenue from co-products like electricity. Today, the enzymes
needed to breakdown wood products are one of the major costs associated
with production. As industrial volumes of biofuel are produced and
demand grows, technological learning and economies-of-scale will help
reduce the cost.
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act in the United States
requires that 117 billion litres (31 billion gallons) of ethanol be
added to gasoline annually by 2022. In Canada, the federal government mandates that gasoline must include five per cent renewable fuel content.
Wood-based biofuel creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and
requires less water to produce. Cellulose, the main component of wood,
is also the most abundant polymer on Earth and unlike the starch and
sugars found in corn and sugarcane, people cannot digest it. Production
of wood-based ethanol fuel doesn’t use food supplies for fuel and
competition for agricultural land can be reduced.
“If you do a purely economic production cost comparison between wood
and corn today, corn will be the lower cost option,” says Stephen. “If
we consider other factors, like energy security, the environmental
impact and availability of resources, cellulosic ethanol becomes a more
competitive option for Canada and the United States.”
In Canada, wood waste, corn stover and wheat straw are being considered for wood-based ethanol production.
Stephen notes that 35 years ago Brazil made the decision to invest
heavily in sugarcane-ethanol production. Today, Brazil’s flex-fuel
vehicles run on fuels of up to 100 per cent ethanol and government
subsidies for the industry have nearly disappeared.
“Commercial production of wood-based
ethanol requires government support to be economically viable,” says
Stephen. “There has been a lot of investment in the research and
development of cellulosic ethanol, especially in the United States and
Canada. Huge advancements have been made to reduce the cost of
production but there is still a long way to go before the volumes
produced by the corn ethanol industry are attainable.”
This study was supported by
the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
and the British Columbia Innovation Council (BCIC).