Biofuels from forest biomass moves toward commercial production

June 2013

New Zealand production of biofuels has moved a step closer with the successful development by Scion of a viable way to cost-effectively produce sugars from softwoods such as radiata pine.

The development represents a major milestone towards eventually creating a home-grown transport fuel and energy industry biofuels from planted forests - the only national-scale feedstock source for biofuel production in New Zealand.

It also marks the conclusion of the three-year “Lignocellulosic Biofuel Initiative” project, funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, as part of its public good science fund, along with investment from Scion.

“For a number of years, New Zealand researchers have been looking for a viable way to create biofuels from radiata pine,” says Project Leader Dr Ian Suckling.

“While we’ve known that the potential fuel yield from radiata pine is high, softwoods have proven to be extremely tricky to biochemically convert. The difficult step has been the conversion of wood to monomeric (or simple) sugars like glucose. That’s the problem this project set out to tackle. 

“Our findings were scrutinised by a multi-party team of experts, including scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, USA. On the basis of the high-quality of findings to date, they recommended that Scion should begin to package and market this technology to prospective partners and collaborators.”

A commercial overseas partner could be the first to trial the technology. Successful negotiation of the technical and cost challenges offshore would reduce the risk of any future commercial scale implementation in New Zealand.

Wood manufacturers and energy companies, among others, would be logical partners to commercialise the process and he imagines there would be interest from biofuels companies which have already invested in this area.

The development of a cost-effective way of producing monomeric sugars from softwoods, compared to refining petroleum from oil, was a key result of the work. To achieve this, the researchers developed and refined processes using a techno-economic computer model. The model described the process, accounting for the materials, energy balance, capital and operating costs.

Scion research shows that monomeric sugars derived from softwoods can be converted to a variety of transport fuels, such as ethanol and diesel, as well as chemical feedstocks for biotechnology products like bioplastics.

“Research using the techno-economic model and the laboratory worked hand-in-hand.” says Dr Suckling. “We’d simulate changes to the production process, testing the more promising in the laboratory and at Scion’s biorefinery pilot plant. We fed the most promising results back into the model and repeated the process.”

The biggest improvements, resulting in a 26% cost reduction, were in pre-treatment of wood pulp, and the use of new enzymes that created high yields of the monomeric sugars.  

While biofuels have yet to be created at scale from radiata pine, the project has developed the key technology steps to convert radiata pine wood to those fuels. Importantly, once further developed the process could be used to produce biofuels from a significant biomass resource - sustainably grown planted forests - here in New Zealand.