Emerging Technologies Look to Biomass

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Woody Innovations: Researchers are looking for ways to turn woody biomass and low-grade fiber into a wide variety of products from jet fuel to clothing to building material and more. These technologies could drive improved demand for wood fiber in the future.


The emergence of profitable markets for woody biomass continues to be a topic of interest to operators in the wood products industry. Here are some of the emerging technologies that may or may not play a hand in shaping tomorrow’s global and regional fiber markets.

Shipboard Biomass Phytosanitation

Maine’s Eastport Port Authority has announced its intention to install a shipboard phytosanitation system for treating mixed conifer biomass wood chip cargo at the port of Eastport. The system will be located on the pier, and operate during the process of loading wood chips aboard the vessel. The process calls for moisture laden, saturated air, heated to 60°C. to be forced into the hold and subsequently extracted by a low vacuum. The recirculated hot air process is monitored electronically, and maintained until the cargo has been subjected to 56°C for a period greater than 30 minutes, thus achieving phytosanitary certification for shipment to Europe.

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The Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) is offering financing of $1.65 million to complete the project, which is anticipated to benefit the port, surrounding region as well as Maine’s forest products industry.

Phyto-Charter, the developer of the technology, will receive a royalty fee of 50 cents per ton when wood product is moved through the port using the equipment. The idea behind the technology is to develop a new use for low-grade fiber by opening up European markets. But first the woody biomass must be heat treated to ensure that wood pests are killed.

New Applications “Looking Up” for Building Materials

While wood fiber and plastic composite decking has provided an outlet for wood fiber for two decades, Fiberon, one of the major players in the composite decking market, has introduced a new vertical application for this material, branded as Fiberon Composite Cladding. Aside from its attractive appearance, the cladding incorporates a rain screen system that helps deflect rain more effectively than conventional siding systems. The cladding is designed with a hollow interior void, and with drainage holes at the base. The hollow core helps prevent low interior air pressure which can draw moisture inside the house. With economists predicting a 10% increase in single-family housing starts to 855,000 units in 2017, the growth of composite building products could provide a greater opportunity for clean wood fiber.

Cellulose Nanofiber

Cellulose nanofiber (CNF) is an extremely strong, lightweight material produced from wood pulp as well as other plant sources. It is already being used for simple products such as ballpoint pens, disposable diapers as well as a thickening agent for food and cosmetics in Japan. Given that CNF is one-fifth the weight of steel and has strength anywhere from three to five times greater, there is considerable excitement around the potential for CNF for structural components, including automotive parts.

Success, however, will depend on reducing production costs. Currently, the cost of production is significantly greater than for carbon fiber. Researchers at Kyoto University in Japan, however, have developed a manufacturing process that produces CNF at only one-third the cost of carbon fiber. This technology has now been incorporated into a Nippon Paper facility.

In the U.S., Mark Rudnicki, a professor of practice in forest biomaterials at Michigan Technological University speculates that it may not be long before a car’s entire frame can be made from lignin-based carbon fiber.

Biomaterials for a Range of Products

While the use of cellulose fiber for clothing in the form of rayon has been around for around 150 years, it looks to be increasingly in fashion. Clothing manufacturers are attempting to decouple new clothing production from raw material extraction through the use of recycled materials. Fast fashion has become a sustainability concern, with 80% of clothing ending up in landfills.

Lenzing Group, a global specialty cellulose fiber producer, recently launched Refibra, an innovative fiber for clothing made from recycled cotton scraps and wood. The developers say it is the first cellulose fiber featuring recycled material to be offered on a commercial scale.

Biofuel Takes to the Air

And how about the possibility of an airplane made of high performance wood fiber (as per the discussion above) being fueled by wood-based jet fuel? Alaska Airlines made history last November, at least in the wood-based fuel category, by flying the first commercial flight using the world’s first renewable, alternative jet fuel made from the forest harvest residuals of managed forests in the Pacific Northwest. The alternative jet fuel was produced through the efforts of the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA).

The flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. was powered by jet fuel containing 20% forest-derived isobutanol. The airline noted that the 1,080 gallons of biofuel used on the flight has a minimal impact on its overall greenhouse gas emissions, but if it could replace 20% of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of CO2. This amount is equivalent to taking approximately 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

Gevo, Inc., a NARA partner, successfully adapted its patented technologies to convert cellulosic sugars derived from wood waste into renewable isobutanol, which was then further converted into Gevo’s Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) fuel. Believed to be the world’s first alternative jet fuel produced from wood, the fuel meets international ASTM standards, allowing it to be used safely for commercial flights. The company hopes to be able to get the cost of its isobutanol down to $3.50 to $4.50 per gallon.

With global R&D taking place around the world, wood innovations continue to emerge at a staggering pace as researchers seek out new renewable products and materials. As always, however, commercial viability will depend on variables such as production costs and performance versus competing materials. The growth in the wood-based products market, however, should translate into greater interest in wood product manufacturing residuals.