WPAC Report: Researching the future
Biomass research holds key to unlocking a world of possibilities, writes Gordon Murray.
March 14, 2023 By Gordon Murray
Our vision at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) is two-fold. First, to grow a resilient pellet sector that creates green, renewable products at the forefront of the global transition to a low carbon economy. And second, to maximize the sector’s innovation in the bioeconomy.
We’re a small team with a big passion for excellence and unsurpassed commitment to safety, sustainability, our members, and to the communities that depend on our sector to do things right.
I believe the wood pellet sector hits it out of the park most days – we’re creating responsible, renewable and sustainable energy to displace fossil fuels, we’re improving our safety record year over year, and we are investing in people and communities.
As the world’s population continues to grow, so will the demand for cleaner energy solutions and better products. The fact is that it’s research that is going to propel us forward. WPAC is one of the few forest sector associations in Canada with a research arm. Our success depends on provincial and federal governments, scientists and academics, safety experts, producers and our customers who support us with both funding, expertise and time.
For over 15 years WPAC has partnered with the Biomass and Bioenergy Research Group (BBRG) at the University of British Columbia. The work has been so successful that in 2019 we hired one of UBC’s star graduates, Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, Ph.D., as our director of research. Fast forward to today, Fahimeh is globally recognized for her leadership in greenhouse gas solutions and research related to the safe use, storage and transportation of pellets.
Today wood pellets are gaining international recognition as a gateway to producing different types of high value fuels and biomaterials. Through our research and collaboration with partners, we are trailblazing on the product development, safety and supply fronts.
There’s a great source of pride among these trailblazers, and rightly so. Shahab Sokhansanj, Ph.D., BBRG’S research leader at the University of British Columbia says, “Our engineers and scientists focus on the gap between the raw biomass source and biomass conversion,” adding that, “No other place in the world is as focused on pelletization mathematical modelling, on logistics of feedstock supply and post-production handling of pellets as our group.”
It should be noted that Sokhansanj received the 2016 International Bioenergy Conference and Exhibition’s Founders Award for his contribution to the development of engineering science around post-harvest handling of biomaterials, and a gold medal in drying science at the International Drying Symposium held in Valencia, Spain, in 2018.
The fact is we are making real tangible breakthroughs. Over the past four years, with funding from the federal government under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, WPAC and BBRG collaborated on research focused on production, logistics and commercialization of marketable pellets from underutilized low-quality biomass in Canada. Key achievements included:
- Pre-processing and pelletizing low-quality biomass and generating pellet production data using a newly purchased pilot-scale pellet machine;
- Developing and comparing supply chain scenarios and identifying the most cost-efficient supply chain scenario considering the possibility of integration with existing grain and wood pellet supply chains; and
- Identifying a clear commercial pathway to make marketable pellets from low-quality biomass resources a success, including developing quality certification.
Research is also making our sector safer. Fifteen years ago, there were a series of fatal accidents that involved stevedores going into ship holds carrying pellets and being overcome by carbon monoxide. No one really understood what was creating this dangerous situation. We knew we had to dig into this issue to find out why it was happening and what steps we could take to prevent these tragedies. We installed a pilot-scale pellet silo in the lab to study the effects off-gassing. The collection of that data set the foundation of international standards and practical procedures that are being used globally for the storage, handling and transportation of wood pellets.
Federal funding has also enabled further research into fibre pile management. Our group has studied the effects of fibre stored in piles, and the self-heating and combustion that can occur over time. The risk of spontaneous ignition increases if the raw material or biofuel becomes moist, the stored volume is large, and the ambient temperature is high. This research and resulting study have created new best practices for fibre pile management.
We are currently taking proactive steps now to ensure a strong funding foundation for ongoing research and product development by building on our positive relationship with the Government of Canada and on the success of our current research initiatives to further mobilize new biomass feedstock sources.
BBRG and WPAC have applied for a new five-year research funding agreement with the Government of Canada under the recently announced Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (SCAP) program for the period of April 1, 2023, to March 31, 2028.
There are lots of synergies between wood and agri-pellets. Solving the logistical complexities associated with the dispersed crop residues and reducing the high ash/chlorine contents in herbaceous crops would make agri-pellets another source of low carbon feedstock.
The sky is the limit
We now know the answer to a lot of questions that we didn’t know 10 years ago. Today, that data is the foundation of international standards and practical procedures that are keeping people safer, contributing to the global fight against climate change, reducing energy poverty here in Canada, and unlocking the door to the new bioeconomy; one where pellets spark new pathways, products and innovations.
But we know we have new frontiers to cross and more opportunities to explore. We will only get there through collaboration and investment. As Gary Bull, Ph.D., professor and head of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest Resources Management, says, “Wood pellets have an incredibly important role to play in society, and we will see a huge evolution. The opportunities for using wood pellets right here at home and around the world are basically limitless.”
Gordon Murray is the executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
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