Canadian Biomass Magazine

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Full Steam Ahead?


November 29, 2012
By Robin Brunet

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Will we ever achieve large-scale biofuel production? That was the question that kept resurfacing amongst the 100-plus speakers during the five plenary sessions and four breakout tracks that made up the seventh annual 2012 Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, held in Vancouver between Oct. 9 and 12.

Will we ever achieve large-scale biofuel production? That was the question that kept resurfacing amongst the 100-plus speakers during the five plenary sessions and four breakout tracks that made up the seventh annual 2012 Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, held in Vancouver between Oct. 9 and 12.

Prior to the summit, Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial & Environmental Section executive vice-president Brent Erickson set the tone for the proceedings by telling the press, “The continued progress in industrial biotechnology toward commercial applications is a vital step in building a growing bio-based economy that can strengthen economic security and enhance energy security.”

That indeed became a main point of discussion during two key plenaries: “Flying Green: Why Airlines See a Bright Future in Biofuels,” and “Overcoming Regional Biomass Feedstock Supply Challenges with Public Policy and Science.”

In the former plenary, Warren Lampitt, general manager of technical programs for Air Canada, described the critical importance of drop-in fuels to his industry and noted that “we need a feedstock chain that assures economically sustainable yields – because we can’t afford to pay premiums for biofuel, not if we are to fly in meaningful volumes.”

Steve Fabijanski, chief executive officer of Agrisoma, told speakers (including Sean Newsum, project manager for Boeing Commercial Airlines) that his company may have a solution. Agrisoma’s Resonance biofuel, a derivative of the brassica carinata oil seed, grows in harsh conditions; it’s currently being harvested on 6,700 acres in 27 North American locations and out-yields all other alternatives. “With Resonance, Canada’s great rail system and processing and storage facilities, this country can be a leader in making biofuel viable on a commercial scale,” he said.

Lampitt, with reference to Air Canada’s goal of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward, remarked, “If you grow it, we will fly it.”

Newsum outlined Boeing’s two-pronged approach to reducing carbon emissions, which consists of building more efficient airplanes and increasing operational efficiency. But he stressed that sustainable and affordable biofuel is a key factor that will enable his industry to continue growing.

Moderator Ross MacFarlane, senior advisor of business partnerships for Climate Solutions, was even more outspoken. He cited cost, conflict and climate as the three main drivers for aviation biofuels and stated that the political and economic instability of fossil fuels has rendered vulnerable “the profitability and even the survivability” of airline companies.

He went on to note that although great strides have been made in biofuel test usage, some airline companies have transitioned to early commercial flights: “We now need to set up a feedstock chain from end to end . . . we want to have 1,500 flights a day powered by biofuels, not 1,500 a year.” The speakers were united in the conviction that government can create policies to ensure that aviation fuels are not at a disadvantage, as well as maintain a stable policy environment to give investors confidence in continuing to pursue advanced biofuel development.

At the “Overcoming Regional Biomass Feedstock Supply” plenary, discussion focused on the fact that while the timber supply in North America has increased by over 60% in the past 60 years and therefore biomass supplies are abundant, it remains a low-value, high-cost market.

Anna Rath, president and CEO of biomass crop producer Nexsteppe, suggested that while the volumes of biomass necessary for commercialization may exist on home turf, the ability to process huge volumes is problematic. “Many companies are locating in Brazil due to that country’s facilities and experience,” she said. However, she predicted the same wherewithal will develop in North America “in the long run.”

The Canadian government’s potential to assist in the commercialization of biomass production was debated. “The marketplace must be allowed to work,” said Linda Beltz, director, technology partnerships, for Weyerhaueser, adding that since global energy demand will increase by 50% by 2035, “all types of biomass have to be made available and useful.”

Michael Rushton, chief operating officer for Lignol Innovations, said that without government assistance “we wouldn’t be as far along as we are now.” However, “incentives provided by government have been inconsistently applied and influenced by interest groups.” Potential biomass players, he concluded, “are staying away until that landscape has settled.”

For his part, Rushton reminded audiences of a familiar impediment to wide-scale biomass production. “A lot of folk simply don’t believe that forests are sustainable,” he explained. “Peoples’ backs get up when they hear that new parts of a forest are opened up for logging.”

Erickson views the Vancouver event, which attracted over 300 attendees, as an unqualified success. Next year’s Pacific Rim Summit will be held in November in San Diego.


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