Experts discuss biorefining opportunities at pulp and paper mills
Concerns over available technology in the biorefining industry are a thing of the past and Daniel Burciaga, president and CEO of TRI ThermoChem Recovery International Inc., can attest. TRI has already provided a syngas-based technology for two biorefinery projects in Wisconsin as well as a demonstration facility in North Carolina, and according to him, previous technology concerns in the past three to four years have given way to feedstock supply issues. During a presentation on TRI’s involvement and role in the emerging biorefining industry at the 2011 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, Burciaga, along with several experts and leaders affiliated with biorefining-based facilities, companies and organizations, discussed the main issues in the industry. The hot topic of the day: in the next five years, what will a biorefinery look like?
For Burciaga, a successful facility will value biomass supply, sourcing strategies, long-term supply agreements and biomass costs as the main factor. Following biomass sourcing issues, he told an attentive crowd assembled for a panel titled A Game Changer: Energy Production in the Beleaguered Pulp and Paper Industry, that making the most high-value products possible from the given feedstock will be key. “You get those two sorted out first,” he said, “and, to provide flexibility, make sure you have a technology that can provide a wide range of feedstocks or can produce a wide range of products.”
Kelly Ogilvie, CEO of Blue Marble Biomaterials, agreed with Burciaga on the importance of feedstock flexibility. But, Ogilvie’s notion of a biorefinery five years down the road strayed from Burciaga’s. While TRI’s technology is geared towards both advanced biofuel and biobased product manufacturing, and offers a proven approach to an integrated facility, Ogilvie stressed the enormous opportunity his company sees in the biobased chemical space. He said his company talked to someone from Chevron and they said from the fraction of a barrel of oil used for petrochemicals pays for the drilling, extraction, distillation and transport to market. Blue Marble Biomaterials, which has worked to engineer molecular pathways in microorganisms to express desired characteristics that are the same as other hydrocarbons, is selling their products to food manufacturers, Ogilvie said.
“A good example is juicy fruit,” he said. “There is no such thing as a juicy fruit. That is a petrochemical. And, the blueberry muffins from Costco, that’s not blueberry you are eating. You are tasting a petrochemical.”
For both Burciaga and Ogilvie, however, the future biorefinery, regardless of products made at the site, has the greatest chance to happen co-located with a pulp and paper mill. Jeff Ross, process engineer for Kimberly-Clark, a major pulp and paper provider located in Everett, Wash., agreed on the opportunity for a biorefinery-infused technology that would add an additional revenue stream to the many struggling mills across the country. “The driver is reducing the amount of sludge we have to landfill,” Ross said. Over the past five years, Ross has been researching the possibility of utilizing the sludge produced at the Everett facility as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock, or as a product to outsource to ethanol facilities as a feedstock. Although Ross has yet to finish his research, Burciaga, Ogilvie and Doug Dudgeon, director for Process Development of the Harris Group Inc., all agreed on the potential of a biorefinery working with a pulp and paper mill. For Dudgeon, the positive aspect of the pulp and paper mills is in the handling and supply of raw material along with the pretreatment processes already performed at the mills.
“Pulp and paper mills are nirvana for us,” Ogilvie said. “For technology providers like ours, there is capacity there (at pulp and paper mills), there is biomass handling there, there are digester tanks and distillation on site and, whether it be mechanical, thermal or processing, there is an institutional expertise and scale that technology providers like us do not have.”
To prove his point, Ogilvie pointed out a recent Canadian-based paper mill shutdown. The mill, Ogilvie cited, was closed due to a mill in South America that took the business due to lower labor costs. Those services at the mills, he said, are shifting to India, China and South America, adding, “It also represents an opportunity.” The U.S., Canada and Western Europe are very good at technology development, and if the pulp and paper mill industry looks at technology available to their sites, “There is a tremendous opportunity.”
As for those looking to gain interest and investment in a biorefinery project apart from the pulp and paper mill industry, Burciaga said, “If you need investors, perform a feasibility study” that looks at location, size, available feedstocks and potential products. “If you site it,” he said, “interests will come.”