Refining the Forest
With a $6.9 million NSF
grant, UMaine is investing in research and infrastructure to develop
sustainable forest bioproducts
approach to sustaining a forest and its bioproducts market UMaine's
new $10.35 million forest biorefinery research program will build
infrastructure to enable Maine's private sector to build an
integrated forest biorefinery.
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Imagine — or maybe you can remember — the looks on Americans' faces in
1961 when President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon
and return him safely to Earth. You might see a lot of raised and
wrinkled brows in front of a black-and-white glow. But at what was then
3-year-old NASA, scientists with slide rules in hand and Buick-size
computers chugging away weren't asking if the lunar landing would
happen, but when.
Re-enter present-day Maine. A similarly perplexing quandary prevails,
and although this one is rooted in terra firma, the "space race"
provides a reliable metaphor.
At the University of Maine, amid the intense murmuring of laptops and
combo-drive Macs, scientists and engineers armed with a new,
multimillion-dollar federal grant address the pressing issue of our
time: fuel, energy, green chemicals — and trees.
They're talking about forest biorefineries, using trees instead of oil
to make fuel. But not just fuel. UMaine wants to augment the pulp and
paper and building products industries with new revenue streams of
high-profit margin chemicals to make coatings, plastics for tubs for
butter or fenders for cars, and maybe even nanotechnology products. Best
of all, these bioproducts would leave a smaller, lighter ecological
People in pockets of America might scrunch their faces. But Mainers,
like people in the Pacific Northwest and South who depend on forest
industries for their livelihoods, are ready. That's especially true when
faced with increasingly harsh economic realities like the announcement
this past March that Georgia-Pacific was closing its mill in Old Town,
Maine, a stone's throw from the UMaine campus.
"I think it is almost inevitable that a transformation of the pulp and
paper industries will come," says Adriaan Van Heiningen, a UMaine
professor and the Ober Chair of Chemical Engineering who is recognized
worldwide as a leader in chemical engineering related to pulp and paper
processing. "I even think if the pulp and paper industry will not do (biorefining),
energy companies will."
Trees, after all, are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, just like
corn — and oil.
Other states and universities, and public companies and private
investors, are ramping up biorefinery research. Even singer Willie
Nelson has joined the biodiesel bandwagon, branding his own BioWillie
and pumping up support coast to coast.
"We know how to extract hemicellulose from wood and still make pulp.
Professor Van Heiningen can do this," says Hemant Pendse, chair of
UMaine's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
"Hemicellulose then can be turned into sugars for fermentation to
ethanol. But nobody has been able to do it effectively or efficiently
enough for commercialization."
Advances in science, coupled with better understanding of the ecosystem,
the biology of tree growth and the chemistry of breaking wood down,
allow us to approach forest biorefining more efficiently than we have in
the past, says Stephen Shaler, a UMaine professor of wood sciences and
technology, and associate director of the Advanced Engineered Wood
Composites Center on campus.
Maine researchers realize that no resources are infinite, and they are
growing the field of sustainable forestry to raise awareness of the need
to take better care of what we have.
But tree plantations in Brazil, Chile, New Zealand and other countries
produce as much as five to seven times more wood per acre than in
unmanaged forests. One estimation puts tree plantations at 5 percent of
total forestland, but production is 20 percent of the worldwide total,
satisfying 34 percent of the world's demand for wood; they are projected
to provide 60 percent of the world's softwood by 2050.
Scientists ominously refer to exports from these operations as the "wall
of wood." This wall's encroaching presence has decreased the price of
paper, but the price of wood in the northeastern U.S. has risen because
of increased energy costs. Profits are squeezed by this dual behavior,
Van Heiningen says.
Fuel and transportation costs also figure into the timber industry. The
cost to ship product from Old Town to the rest of the country was one
factor in GP's closing of its Old Town mill, a company vice president
told the local media.
UMaine researchers are spurred to action by a confluence of local and
global events: the war in Iraq and the escalating price of West Texas
Intermediate; an anemic and limping forest products industry in Maine;
and the nagging knowledge that other scientists and engineers in other
laboratories in other states and countries also are closing in on forest
And here we are again. Prompted by foreign pressures seemingly out of
our control, economic doldrums and global competition, we are about to
begin a scientific quest. We even have a presidential call to action,
although the famous remark, "we shall see space filled with instruments
of knowledge and understanding," from President John Kennedy's speech at
Rice University in 1962 is slightly more eloquent than, "We'll also fund
additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol... from
wood chips and stalks, or switch grass," from President George Bush's
State of the Union in 2006.
In March, UMaine received a $6.9 million award from the National Science
Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR),
which required a 50 percent ($3.45 million) match by the university
through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. The grant, called
"Investing in Maine Research Infrastructure: Sustainable Forest
Bioproducts," is making all of this new research possible. With it, the
university will build the research infrastructure to create a
biorefinery in Maine.
Discussions also are under way to determine the feasibility of
establishing a Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, involving basic
and applied research, and industry interests.
"Wood-based products like plastics, fuels and other new materials are
the new wave," Pendse says. "We are essentially positioning the state so
that (it) can be a big player in this arena."
The fact is, the state is used to using the forest for products, which
means "we're ready to roll," Shaler says. Private industry would build a
forest biorefinery — one of the first in the country. UMaine will supply
the science and engineering, and the educated workforce to carry it
"The university's role is really to catalyze the private sector's
advances," Pendse says.
Wisconsin, New York and Mississippi all have programs in forest
biorefining. But Pendse points to the NSF EPSCoR grant as proof that
UMaine is out front.
UMaine also is taking advantage of the vast amount of human resources in
the Pine Tree state, creating a holistic approach, breaking through
traditional academic barriers to cross-pollinate expertise in
engineering, chemistry, biology, forestry, ecology and economics.
Partnerships are in place among leaders in the forest-products industry
and forest landowners. Business leaders, scientists, engineers and
foresters will collaborate.
UMaine's science is on a unique course. Other research uses all the
components of wood to produce ethanol, eliminating the coproduction of
traditional products, Pendse says. UMaine's research keeps the current
forest-based products — pulp and paper and wood composites — intact.
Wood has three components — cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose.
Cellulose, which comprises almost half, contains the valuable fibers
that give wood its structural value. Lignin has a high-energy value when
it's burned to fuel a mill. But lignin and hemicellulose are combined in
the spent pulping liquor, and since hemicellulose has half the heating
value of lignin, burning hemicellulose does the mill little good.
Practically half of the wood becomes valuable pulp; the other half is
burned for fuel, of which about half doesn't generate much heat.
But ethanol may be derived from hemicellulose; hence, its value. The
problem is that hemicellulose degrades during pulping, and it is
difficult to separate hemicellulose from lignin, which is where research
comes in. It's also more difficult to obtain hemicellulose from softwood
while maintaining the fibers' structural integrity during pulping.
Van Heiningen, with students and post-docs in his lab, as well as with
collaborators, is trying to perfect that separation. The first step will
be extraction of hemicelluloses.
"This is what sets us apart from the others," says Van Heiningen. "I
take the hemicellulose out before we do the actual pulping," while
maintaining the wood fiber quality for pulping or other processing.
The set-up would be relatively simple for mills, and would not require
much of a technical challenge. Some mills could extract the
hemicellulose and make ethanol to sell; others, Pendse suggests, could
send it to a satellite mill where it could become finished products.
Like oil, chemicals from trees could be used to make a variety of
products: plastics for containers or manufactured parts, coatings,
adhesives and resins. One project in the Advanced Engineered Composites
Center is a car fender made using a wood-derived resin.
These niche chemicals could bring twice or triple the price of pulp, Van
Heiningen says. Deriving ethanol alone could add 20 percent to 30
percent in revenue.
In Maine, trees have many advantages over other crops used in
biorefineries: they don't have to be shipped in, they're abundant and
can be harvested year-round and they have a unique polymeric
architecture. Seventy percent of wood cellulose is nanocrystals, Shaler
says. If these nanocrystals can efficiently be removed from cellulose,
they have the potential to compete with carbon nanotubes for a variety
of structural, consumer and electrical applications, such as textiles
"We're looking at a new field of products that traditionally have not
been made in the forest products industry," Shaler says.
Valuable, high-margin, wood-based products depend on the quality — and
availability — of the tree from which the products are derived. As the
value of bioforest products rises, so would the value of American trees.
"For landowners, a forest biorefinery means increased demand for their
product," says Robert Wagner, UMaine's Henry W. Saunders Distinguished
Professor and director of the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit, where
he serves as a liaison between UMaine research and forest landowners.
"The big boon for (foresters) is likely to be the increased market for
low- and poor-quality trees," because they'll be used for hemicellulose.
Valuable trees, the logic goes, receive better care, which will improve
the environment. The "energy input"— the amount of energy expended to
make ethanol compared to the energy value of ethanol itself — from wood
is low, less than 50 percent; ethanol from corn is close to 100 percent.
Trees also remove carbon dioxide from the air, making any CO2 production
negligible. In the long run, Shaler says, using trees for fuel could
help reduce greenhouse gases.
Creating a biorefinery and reaping its benefits will be a long row to
hoe. Van Heiningen estimates that the volume of transportation fuel
produced from Maine forests will be significant in the state. But
nationally, at less than 1 percent, it's a drop in the 55-gallon barrel.
Yet, if Maine creates the model, and other states that share the North
Woods — Vermont, New Hampshire and New York — duplicate the efforts, the
impact could be substantial in the Northeast, Pendse says.
There are as many factors as there are varieties of pines that will
determine the success of forest biorefining — including the price of
oil. Americans seemed to quickly forget the "energy crisis" of the
1970s. If oil prices come down, as some economists are forecasting,
there is a history of investors being shortsighted and abandoning a bet
on a sure thing like forest biorefining.
However, if biorefining processes reach their full potential, and
measures to sustain the forests and the industries are successful, the
creation of these new revenue streams will go a long way to reclaiming —
and creating — a lot of jobs in Maine.
"I believe this could save the (forest) industry," Van Heiningen says.
While it's premature to say the Eagle has landed, the project has lifted
off and the horizon is clear.
by Clinton Colmenares
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