​Two projects advance wood waste to biocrude, renewable natural gas technologies

Licella’s Cat-HTR process has been tested at its pilot plant near Sydney, Australia. Image: Licella Fibre Fuels

As one of the world’s biggest forestry industry producers, Canada produces an overabundance of wood waste. And as one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters, Canada needs to find new ways to green its economy.

Two new projects in Alberta and B.C. look to combine the two in profitable new ways by using new technology to convert biomass to biofuel and renewable natural gas. Forest residue, which includes all parts of the tree, can be converted into solid, liquid or gaseous biofuels that can then be burned for energy or used as fuel substitutes for transportation or industrial processes.

Burnaby-based G4 Insights will build a renewable natural gas (RNG) demonstration plant at an ATCO hosted site in Edmonton to test its conversion technology with a range of biomass types to generate technical operating and economic data.

G4 Insights’ proprietary PyroCatalytic Hydrogenation (PCH), a low temperature thermochemical process, produces a renewable drop-in replacement for fossil natural gas which can be delivered to end users through existing natural gas pipelines and used in any unmodified natural gas equipment, appliance, vehicle, industrial process or power generator.

“This project will advance G4 technology toward commercialization through field trials of enhanced subsystems for robust continuous operation and grid injection," said Edson Ng, principal, G4 Insights.

The company intends to produce small commercial plant units with 400GJ/day output of methane which would require about two logging trucks worth of wood per day and large commercial plants that produce 10,000 GJ/day and require about 50 logging trucks per day of wood material.

Renewable natural gas produced from lignocellulosic biomass can emit up to 85 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels. There is sufficient available and sustainable waste forestry biomass in the U.S. and EU alone to support $40 billion per year in RNG sales (about four per cent of global natural gas demand), according to G4 Insights.

G4 Insights is partnering with Canadian Gas Association members Enbridge Gas Distribution, FortisBC, Gaz Metro, Union Gas, ATCO, the Natural Gas Innovation Fund, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations, who are contributing a combined $1.35 million toward the project. And Natural Resources Canada announced today an $800,000 investment in G4 Insights for the development of the technology.

In many jurisdictions, existing government policies mandate fossil-fuel producers to reduce their carbon footprint by blending renewable biofuels into existing products. In addition, shifting government policies favour cellulose-based biofuels, incentivizing carbon-reduction potential rather than biofuel volumes.

"CGA and the natural gas delivery industry have made driving innovation a key focus for the last six years with initiatives and investments around the use of natural gas and natural gas delivery infrastructure. Improving the technology to convert biomass to RNG will support the industry's aspirational target of blending 10 per cent RNG in the Canadian natural gas distribution system by 2030," Timothy M. Egan, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Gas Association, said in a statement.

Next generation biocrude

In B.C., Canfor Pulp Products Inc. is partnering with Australian-based startup Licella Fibre Fuels in a $39 million project to convert biomass into biofuel.

Canfor Pulp began working with Licella in May 2016 to investigate whether Licella’s technology can economically convert pulp biomass into a renewable biocrude. Licella’s first-of-kind catalytic hydrothermal reactor (Cat-HTR) technology converts low-value biomass from wood waste and pulp mill waste to clean, sustainable biofuel.

A program of preliminary trials were conducted in Australia where wood residue streams (wood and black liquor) from Canfor Pulp’s kraft process were successfully converted into a stable biocrude oil.

If economically successful on a larger scale, the biocrude oil can be refined in a conventional refinery and easily be upgraded to gasoline, diesel, kerosene and fuel oil blend stocks.

Over the past eight years Licella has invested AUD$60 million in its technology development, scaling up the Cat-HTR platform to its current generation three version. Licella is now on track to scale up to its generation four version, a ten times scale up, aligned to be the commercial scale module of its now tested reactor.

“Licella’s Cat-HTR technology may add significant value to Canfor Pulp’s kraft process by creating new products from Canfor Pulp’s waste streams,” said Len Humphreys, Licella chief executive officer. “What we are potentially building towards is a bio-refinery to utilize the entire tree, rather than part of the tree.”

The project will receive up to $13.2 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, B.C.-based Canfor said this week.