November 5, 2019

Alberta researchers investigate lignin as feedstock for biofuel

(This article was originally published in the Logging and Sawmilling Journal.)

By Tony Kryzanowski

The University of Alberta has developed an exciting new technology supported by Alberta Innovates which is able to convert oils and fats, commonly known as lipids, into green fuels such as renewable diesel and bio jet fuel.

A member of a University of Alberta research team investigates various organisms that can break down lignin to make biofuels.
A member of a University of Alberta research team investigates various organisms that can break down lignin to make biofuels.

The feedstock used in the lipid-to-hydrocarbon (LTH) technology developed at the U of A is typically plant oil from crops including non-food-grade canola or animal fats. Now, researchers are being asked to consider byproducts from the forest industry, such as lignin, as a potential feedstock.

Biofuels are an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional fossil fuels, with raw materials to produce them sourced from renewable resources. They can also be dropped into existing conventional fossil fuel streams.

Lignin, a byproduct of the pulp industry, is abundant, bio-friendly, and an under-utilized biomass that represents another potential non-food feedstock alternative for use in the LTH process. The question is whether it can be converted to biofuels economically.

Alberta Innovates invested $240,667 through its Alberta Bio Future research and innovation funding program to answer this question.

“Alberta Innovates is interested in seeing more biomass used to create industrial bioproducts such as biofuel. We invest in promising research and product development, as well as scale-up and commercialization of new bioproducts and technologies,” says Steve Price, Executive Director of Bioindustrial Innovation at Alberta Innovates.

“This kind of innovation helps to expand business opportunities for the forestry sector, an important industry employing 40,000 Albertans,” Price adds. “It also helps to expand the growing bioeconomy in Alberta. In addition, biofuels made from renewable, sustainable biomass such as lignin will help to lower our carbon footprint.”

The U of A researchers working on this project are collaborating with InnoTech Alberta, an applied research subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, and forest products manufacturer West Fraser. West Fraser has supplied high-quality lignin from its lignin recovery facility at its pulp mill in Hinton, Alta. Construction of the lignin recovery plant also received an investment from Alberta Innovates.

Invention of the LTH technology was spearheaded by Dr. David Bressler, Professor of Biorefining Conversions & Fermentations, and Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. If his team succeeds in finding a way to prepare lignin so that it can be used as a feedstock for the LTH process, this will provide yet another potential commercial outlet for lignin.

This is cutting-edge science and it won’t be easy because of the complexity of the lignin molecule.

“We are working with InnoTech and West Fraser, looking for organisms that can ferment and convert lignin into lipid oils and fats, that can then be converted further into renewable diesel, green gasoline and now potentially biojet fuel by using our base technology,” says Dr. Bressler.

He notes that forest companies already produce lipids as part of their pulping process, creating another byproduct called tall oil, which also has potential as an LTH process feedstock. Considering both lignin and tall oil, this could potentially create new revenue streams for the forest industry, with forest company byproducts going into biofuel production.

“There is a very large volume of this material available,” Bressler says. “So, if we are able to find more applications to use it, this creates more markets. The more markets you have for your feedstock, the better it is for industry, because markets for conventional wood products go up and down all the time.”

With the growing world population and demand for energy, coupled with reduced availability over time of non-renewable fossil fuels, there is a need to find a variety of feedstocks to produce energy, he adds. This makes the investigation into the potential of pulp industry byproducts as a potential renewable feedstock resource for the production of biofuel critically important for the future.

“We are looking for ways to take this complex lignin molecule and converting it into a very simple molecule that can go into a lot of other pathways,” says Bressler. “The challenge is to do that cost-effectively.”