Improving the bioproduct supply chain
By Gabrielle Bauer / BioFuelNet
Dec. 22, 2016 - Murphy’s law states that if anything can possibly go wrong, it will. This may be why the biofuel supply chain – a complex sequence with numerous hurdles – has been identified as a key barrier to the development of a bioproduct industry in Canada. It’s a barrier that BioFuelNet’s low-cost sustainable feedstock (LCSF) Task Force is determined to break.
By Gabrielle Bauer / BioFuelNet
“When people interested in running biorefineries talk to us, one of their first questions is whether they can obtain enough feedstock of the type they need and get it to their facilities at a price that makes sense,” says Dr. Kevin Vessey, dean and associate vice president of research at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and head of the task force’s major initiative, called “animating the Canadian biomass feedstock supply.”
The initiative will focus on a short list of emerging supply chain projects (“case studies”) throughout Canada. Task Force members will bring their collective expertise to bear on these projects, laying the groundwork for supply chains that make logistical and economic sense. “The case studies are entirely stakeholder driven,” says Dr. Vessey. “People approach us with a problem or a need, and we put our heads together to help them address it.”
It all starts with feedstock. First decision point: What feedstock to use? It turns out that trees may have distinct advantages. “They’re an underutilized resource that can help biorefiners increase their supply of raw materials,” says Dr. Vessey, citing hybrid poplar and willow as examples. “There’s no shortage of land on which to grow them.”
Next challenge: how to cultivate the trees to maximize biomass yield. To date, research favours coppicing, an approach traditionally used with shrubs. The method involves growing the trees for a year, then cutting them back and letting them regrow. “As long as you leave 10 to 15 cm of stump above ground, the tree will reshoot the following spring, and the shoots can be harvested,” says Dr. Vessey. Which presents a whole new set of problems: “The harvesting technique for coppicing is still under de-velopment,” he says. “We need to figure out the best sort of machinery for it.”
Then there’s the problem of transporting the stuff. Dr. Houman Fei, who works with Dr. Vessey on the Task Force, puts it plainly: “Biomass is heavy. Whether we’re talking about municipal waste, trees, or purpose-grown crops, these feedstocks contain a lot of water,” he says. “We have to transport all that dead weight to get the part we want – the cellulose-containing cell walls – out of the wood.”
To manage this challenge, transportation distances must be kept relatively short. In fact, “it’s been shown that the business case for biorefineries depends on the biomass being within 100 km of the facility,” says Dr. Fei. “So if you’re looking to place a biorefinery somewhere, you need to draw a circle with a 100 km radius around it, and that had better be your catch basin for feedstock.”
Case by case
Fortunately, some bioenergy stakeholders are willing and eager to overcome these hurdles. A case in point: The government of Nova Scotia recently approached BioFuelNet for guidance in setting up a biorefinery in the province, with crown corporation Innovacorp taking the lead on the task. “They didn’t know how to go about getting biomass X to location Y at a price that made sense,” says Dr. Vessey. The Task Force recognized Nova Scotia’s conundrum as good fodder for their first case study.
The Nova Scotia Case Study will likely keep the Task Force busy through the 2015-17 period. “The province has huge amount of abandoned agricultural land – “land where biomass could grow effectively,” says Dr. Vessey. The Task Force is working with stakeholders to find out just how vast and how usable this land is, using GIS [geographical information systems] mapping technology to capture the data. “We hope to eventually be able to help the province identify a logical place to situate a biorefinery.”
Once provincial decision-makers settle on a site, they can draw on the Task Force’s expertise in transportation logistics. Questions to address include: How best to contain transportation distance? What mode of transportation works best across the short distances required? Should the industry focus on a single mode or branch out into several? In search of answers to these questions, the Task Force has deployed some researchers to study the feasibility of a biomass warehousing system and others to build multimodal transportation models.
The biomass itself will get a boost from seaweed extract, a growth promotor that BioFuelNet researchers have found useful in enhancing the yield of trees and grasses. Acadian Seaplants, a Dartmouth, NS manufacturer of marine plant products, will be providing the extract. “We have a strong relationship with Dr. Vessey’s team and are excited to be included in this research,” says Acadian Seaplants research manager Jeff Norrie, adding that “it’s especially exciting to see our sustainable products used to further the production of sustainable fuel resources.”
Looking further ahead, the Task Force has its sights set on a developing case in the rural North. “South of the treeline, these isolated communities have an abundance of biomass, but they depend on flown-in diesel fuel for their energy source,” says Dr. Vessey, who views this state of affairs as “insanely wasteful.” Helping these communities squeeze the juice out of their natural resources would not only cut out the waste, but generate jobs and expertise in a burgeoning field, he says. A further case study under consideration involves the efficient collection of agricultural residues in the Canadian prairies.
The end-game in all these case studies? “Increasing supply chain efficiencies and reducing economic risk to the point where jurisdictions of all sizes can set up biorefineries,” says Dr. Vessey. “That’s what we mean by animating the supply chain.”