Transport fuels from New Zealand biomass a reality

3 March 2008

Biofuels generated from New Zealand-grown softwood feedstocks have been identified as a feasible, large scale option for meeting both the low-carbon transport vision of the Government’s 2007 Energy Strategy (NZES) and Biofuels Sales Obligation (BSO), say the authors of a report by the New Zealand Lignocellulosic Bioethanol Initiative.

Results from a feasibility study have found that there are no significant technical or supply barriers to producing ethanol from New Zealand’s softwood feedstocks, despite previous concerns that it was technically too difficult and too expensive to utilise this resource.

These findings are the outcome of an international collaboration between New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes Scion and AgResearch, New Zealand’s largest pulp and paper producer Carter Holt Harvey and US-based cellulosic ethanol and specialty enzyme development company Verenium Corporation.

The recently completed study into the development of biofuels for New Zealand evaluated the infrastructure, technology and economics of a transportation biofuel facility using New Zealand softwood plantation forests as feedstocks. It also considered opportunities to utilise existing infrastructure from the pulp and paper industry and Verenium’s proprietary enzymes to convert wood and wood residues into sugars which are then be fermented and refined into ethanol.

The study found there is both sufficient wood and wood residues available in New Zealand to supply a commercial-scale ethanol refinery, and a domestic market large enough to support it.

Scion chief executive Dr Tom Richardson says that in contrast to recent concerns raised regarding the production of ethanol from food crops, the New Zealand study indicates biofuels produced from wood are a sustainable and environmentally beneficial option.

“Softwood feedstocks are a resource that already exists here in abundance relative to our small population. We have some of the world’s largest man-made forests. If we were to introduce purpose-grown energy plantations on marginal lands we could increase that resource without placing pressure on land for food or crops, and alleviate concerns around deforestation while providing forest carbon sinks and other environmental benefits,” he says.

“When this partnership was initially formed, we set out to explore options for using existing pulp and paper infrastructure to produce bioethanol from softwood resources. This is in contrast to the majority of international activity which is focused on using grains, sugarcane or grasses, which are often part of the world’s current food supply, or grown on land following deforestation.”

The results of the study provide a potential scenario where New Zealand’s entire vehicle fleet could run on nationally grown and manufactured wood-derived biofuels.

Carter Holt Harvey executive and project manager James Flexman says the next step is to refine the technical program, focus the research and development efforts further, and develop a collective strategy to make this opportunity a reality.

“Having collectively invested nearly NZ$1 million to bring the study to this stage each of the partners is committed to seeing this opportunity progress which is fantastic as the potential for New Zealand is enormous. However, additional investment is now vital if the vision is to become a commercial reality,” he says.

Biofuels generated from softwood feedstocks actively addresses key aspects of the 2007 New Zealand Energy Strategy, a major focus of which is on transitioning New Zealand to a low-carbon energy future.

The New Zealand Government has established a Biofuels Sales Obligation (BSO) of 3.4% transport biofuels by 2012 and set a target to stabilise this country’s net greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 equivalent levels by 2030.

“Due to the challenges in reducing carbon emitted from other contributing sources to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emission profile, transportation fuels will need to be a major contributor to the overall reduction targets if the Government is to successfully meet its climate change objectives,” says James.

“The logical strategy would be to establish a purpose built bioethanol plant that maximises the use of existing pulp and paper infrastructure without impacting on the mill’s current activity.

“A facility located in the Central North Island producing 90 million litres of ethanol per annum could fulfil the petrol component of the government’s BSO by supplying a 10% ethanol gasoline blend (E10) to the North Island.”

The bioethanol project’s U.S partner Verenium Corporation say they are enthusiastic about the future opportunities this research presents both here in New Zealand and globally.

“Beyond New Zealand, Verenium is actively working to address some of the key challenges in biofuels production, including land use practices, sustainability demands, and economic drivers,” says Geoff Hazlewood, senior vice president, research at Verenium.

“We’re very pleased with the progress we have made in New Zealand and look forward to continued involvement with this initiative.”

AgResearch chief executive Dr Andrew West says the results of the study present New Zealand with an opportunity to become a pioneer in the technology of manufacturing bioethanol from lignocellulosics.

“We believe bioethanol from plantation wood and wood residues presents an environmentally and commercially feasible opportunity here in New Zealand” he says.

Scion’s Tom Richardson says that by integrating industrial biotechnology with the effective utilisation of New Zealand’s forestry plantations and processing infrastructure, the forestry industry has the potential to support the New Zealand Government’s goal to be one of the world’s first carbon-neutral economies.

“Carbon neutrality will only happen if technology, policy and industry work together closely in the manner that has been shown by the partners involved in this study.

“Other supporting research has already been completed, adding further weight to the argument that New Zealand can provide renewable and sustainable energy alternatives from an environmentally beneficial resource, derived predominately from sustainably managed plantation forests,” Tom concludes.

Scion expects to release another report within the next month: Bioenergy Options for New Zealand, which outlines the volume of plantation forests that would be needed, and how they should be managed, for New Zealand to fuel itself from renewable resources.