“The economy of the future?”

Lakehead professor touts energy potential of biorefining

Ian Kaufman
News Writer

If Joe Schwartcz’s talk ‘There are cockroaches in my ice cream?’ two weeks ago didn’t convince you of your lack of an adequate scientific education, last week’s presentation  ‘Bioconversion of Lignocellulosic Materials’ would probably have done the trick. But whether or not you know xylans from glucomannans, there was still much to be gleaned from it.
Behind the chemist’s jargon of presenter Robert Dekker lay an issue that could well decide the future of Canada’s forests, and quite possibly Thunder Bay’s economy: wood ethanol.
Dekker, who hails from Australia and has worked in Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain, discussed two main potential sources of ethanol to be found in Canada: wheat and wood (in warmer climes, bagasse – from sugar cane or sorghum – can also be used).
In the biorefining process, which he has been studying for decades, trees can be converted to liquid fuel. He began studying biofuels in Australia when the oil crisis of the 1970s created an interest in alternative fuels. Working with the Australian government’s national science agency, CSIRO, Dekker helped develop what is called steam explosion, a four-step process, which uses enzymes to extract ethanol from wood.
He was lured to Lakehead in 2007 by the Biorefining Research Initiative, which received a substantial government grant to investigate alternative uses of the Boreal forest with the decline of the pulp and paper industry. He touts biorefining technology as “the carbohydrate economy of the future” and talked about the likelihood of forest “energy plantations” in the future.
Allan Gilbert, chair of Chemical Engineering, cautioned that expecting ethanol to sustain our current lifestyle is unrealistic. Currently working on a project which will theorize the size and impacts of a wood plant fueling 1% of Canada’s fuel needs, he maintains that Canada’s forests will not allow us to continue fueling our cars. They may, however, replace oil-based petrochemicals.