While the Norwegian company 'Norske Skog' is struggling with unprofitable paper production and trees are rotting from the roots up, the world is researching alternatives to petrol. Scientists believe we should put wood chips in the tank.
Did you know that Norwegian trees require only a few minutes to replace the timber used to produce the first edition of Aftenposten? That's equivalent to the time you spend making your morning coffee.
Norway is full of forests and the trees are growing willingly. As just one-third of the growth is logged, there is more and more growth each year. Sheep and other domestic animals no longer graze the scrub and the landscape is starting to be over grown.
At the same time, paper production is starting to be unprofitable and the forestry industry is now in slow mode. Norske Skog is threatening to close the factory and forest owners who send a trailer load of wood to the Tronderlag factory every 21st minute around the clock are becoming despondent.
However, the experts say this will change. Norwegian forests can be facing an upswing and timber prices can prove to sky rocket in the future. Where are they taking this from?
The answer is a second generation of fuels biodiesel and bioethanol. First generation production of fuel from rape seed and maize has faced strong criticism. Producing fuel on valuable topsoil as worldwide food production is decreasing is unpopular.
However, the world has huge areas that can be better utilised, and timber from agriculture and forestry can produce more useful growth.
Mimmi Throne-Holst is young, well educated and committed. She is one of those who believe that Norwegian forests can provide the fuels of the future and that Norway should prioritise this because we have considerable experience with biorefinery (Borregaard, Norske Skog) and large-scale production.
In one of SINTEF's many laboratories, fluids are bubbling and brewing in scores of containers, and Throne-Holst proudly displays a large container of wood chips.
'Bio fuels from wood are the area in which Norway and Sweden have most to gain,' says Throne-Holst. 'Technically and economically, it is possible to extract as much as 20 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy a year in Norway in addition to today's withdrawal.'
Norwegian motorists shall have 5.75 percent biofuels mixed into their petrol and diesel by the end of 2010. Given today's market in Norway of 4.3 million tonnes per annum, 5.75 percent would constitute 230,000 tonnes of biofuels.
'In order to achieve this, large amounts of biomass are required, possibly as much as one million tonnes,' says Petter Heyerdahl at the University of Life Sciences (UMB) in As. 'The most accessible biomasses have already been harvested, so we have to go further out and higher up. We can increase profitability if this is carried out in connection with other measures to add value such as thinning, sites for tourism, power lines, roadsides, urban biomass and agro-waste.
Perhaps the Norwegian forest is not so bad after all, with outlooks of a major market combined with sympathetic authorities. But how do you go from solid to liquid form? No matter how much you cut up wood, the hard consistency will also be a long way off liquid fuel.
This is precisely what Throne-Holst and research colleague Karin Oyaas at the Paper and Fibre Research Institute (PFI) in Trondheim are working on: to find cunning methods to split up and convert the lignocelluloses to ethanol so trees can be utilised as fuel.
In a large collaboration project supported by Nordic Energy Research, SINTEF, PFI and a host of other Nordic research and industry partners, including Norske Skog, StatoilHydro and Borregaard, are researching which procedures can be improved.
'Lignin is the compound that cross-links different fibres and enables the tree to stand vertically. Up to one-third of the dry mass of the wood is lignin,' says Throne-Holst. 'Compared to cellulose, lignin has not been exploited to the same degree, but it can now be utilised for biodiesel and other fuel components. The challenge is to develop oil resembling today's oil products from fossil sources.'
The large consortium has each been designated a field of activity. The PFI scientists are researching the separation of the wood mass by subjecting the wood chips to high pressure and high temperature so the wood boils into pieces in a way. The art is to separate the wood fibre's components and extract as much sugar from the tree as possible. SINTEF's contribution is to use microbiological knowledge to develop yeasts that can transform the carbohydrates in the tree to ethanol.
Other groups are also researching the optimal way to transform wood into oil. Professor Tanja Barth and Mike Kleinert at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bergen, Norway, made a breakthrough last year when they managed to develop oil that was more hydro carbonic than previously.
'We added a special solvent that conveyed the hydrogen to lignin,' says Barth. 'In this way, we managed to break the lignin down into several products, including pyrolysis oil that can be mixed into the petrol.'
The Bergen scientists have now filed an application for a patent for the method, and they have commenced a project with industry partners to study uses and up-scaling options.
Weyland AS is a company also located in Bergen. In contrast to Barth and Kleinert who are researching the lignin, Weyland concentrates on the cellulose in the tree. They want to commercialise the technology to convert cellulose into bioethanol using concentrated acid technology.
Their biggest challenge is that a lot of sulphuric acids go into the process. However, the Bergen scientists' process reduces acid consumption to such an extent that that production may be profitable.
Bioethanol production will only be profitable as a link in larger timber operations. No one will earn money by picking birch and spruce tops for bioenergy, and the forest owners are quick to emphasise that the bioenergy industry can forget about getting raw materials without normal forestry. As ethanol is not an expensive product and there is little to be earned, it is also obvious that several parts of the raw materials need to be utilised.
This is where the scientists in Bergen believe the solution may lie: Although the chemical composition in biomass is very different to fossil fuel, Barth and Kleinert believe they know what it takes to break the lignin down into different products.
'The entire tree must be converted into different products in an effective refining process,' says Professor Tanja Barth. 'Lignin can now be used for biodiesel, turpentine, charcoal and other fuel components. With optimal refining, it is possible to exploit 60-80 percent of the energy that is conveyed and the process can be profitable in the space of 10 years.'
Scandinavia has the major advantage that the countries are covered with trees and we also have industries with long traditions in exploiting wood as a resource.
'Norway has oil refineries that produce different chemicals and there is nothing stopping us from establishing biorefineries that use wood and agricultural products to make similar products,' says Throne-Holst. 'Borregaard and Norske Skog are both experts when it comes to processing wood. A biorefinery like Borregaard currently makes around 250 products from lignin.'
StatoilHydro were slightly more sceptical last year when they implemented a joint report on biodiesel with Norske Skog. 'Converting wood into biodiesel is unprofitable,' the report concluded.
In spite of this, Norske Skog proceeded with the project and reported at the start of the year that they wanted an offensive prioritisation of biodiesel production. A contract was signed with the Association of Norwegian Forest Owners for the establishment of a joint company to produce bio fuels. It was also decided to build a prototype plant for bio fuels at Follum near Honefoss. This is expected to be completed in 2009/2010, and when a full scale plant becomes operative in a few years, it will be able to supply 65,000 to 100,000 tonnes of biodiesel or the equivalent of 4-6 percent of Norway's total consumption of diesel in the transport sector. A five-year framework agreement will ensure deliveries of wood to Norske Skog's plants throughout the country.
Other factors have also been arranged for a new development: the parties at the Norwegian Climate Change talks agreed to tighten the targets for greenhouse gas emissions in Norway. The reduction shall be between 15 and 17 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2020 and two-thirds of Norway's total reduction shall be made nationally.
Even if we successfully discover how to produce bio fuels, there are no guarantees about environmentally-friendly production of either first or second generation bio fuels.
Throne-Holst believes first generation fuel will continue to be produced internationally, and that is not always wrong.
'Brazilian authorities believe their production of bioethanol from sugar cane does not compete with food production. Instead, they emphasise advantages like the fact that the production takes place on land that lay fallow, the fuels contribute to the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce the reliance on oil imports and it creates much needed jobs and incomes in regions lacking industry.
Throne-Holst adheres to the fact that we must gradually switch to utilising more of the biomass. She also believes that a mix of bioethanol, biodiesel and other renewable fuels is required to achieve all the environmentally friendly fuels the world needs.
There is still no commercial production of second generation bio fuels. There is an opportunity here for Norway to be a technology developer/supplier in this field.
'We can achieve commercial production in Norway within five years,' says Throne-Holst. 'Part of our Nordic collaboration project is to study whether existing oil refineries or paper mills can be used to produce bioethanol.'
The SINTEF scientist says political support is also important. Norwegian industries need promises of stable framework conditions as they will need long-term earning. Ethical and sustainable production is a prerequisite for making fuels from trees: If a tree is felled, a new one must be planted.
Meanwhile, Mimmi Throne-Holst is sure about one thing: Norwegian wood is good!