Refining the Forest

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 footprint.

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.”

Until now.

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 biorefining.

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 forward.

“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 and circuitry.

“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.