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The wood bio field advances further

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The wood bio field advances further

October 24, 2010 - 16:00
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BRUSSELS, Oct. 25, 2010 (RISI) -Representing nations from around the world, 170 researchers and industry representatives participated in the International Workshop on Wood Biorefinery and Tree Biotechnology held in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, recently. It was the first time that world leading experts in both of these hot research and development areas met to exchange knowledge and create networks. The Umeå Plant Science Center, through the Swedish excellence centre FuncFiber and the Future Biorefinery cluster, organized the conference.

This is a unique conference where the world's elite within the wood biorefinery and tree biotechnology research areas gathered in one location, said one of the organizers, Björn Sundberg, professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in Umeå, in his opening speech. "Our aim with this conference is to bring together the experts within these areas from the academic world as well as from the industry to exchange knowledge and expand the networks."

"The world population is growing and ever more land will be needed for food production. That is why we need to utilize forestland more efficiently."

The program consisted of 39 presentations, two poster sessions and three visits to the nearby companies Domsjö Fabriker, Sekab, MoRe Research and Holmen Skog in order to see their biorefinery activities in practice. The conference was divided into eight sessions covering: Industrial perspective; Feedstock supply; Site visits; Structure and chemical composition of wood; Pre-treatment and enzymatic conversion for wood biorefining; Wood polymers; Green products and chemicals; Cellulose/Hemicellulose/Lignin.

More and better raw material faster

Dario Grattapaglia, professor at the Catholic University of Brasilia and researcher at EMBRAPA, spoke about a comprehensive project in which industry companies and universities in Brazil cooperate to improve the efficiency of eucalyptus breeding. The focus is to develop elite clones of eucalyptus through genomic selection and with genetic markers speed up the process considerably from 12-16 years down to 5-6 years.

"To our knowledge these are the first experimental results of genomic selection in forest trees and among the first public ones in plants in general," said Grattapaglia. "With the technological advances and declining costs of genotyping methods, our cautiously optimistic outlook is that genotyping has true potential to be implemented operationally and revolutionize breeding practice."

Dario Grattapaglia spoke about a successful project aimed at improving the efficiency of eucalyptus breeding

Genes for more biofuel

Gerald Tuscan, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US, spoke about cell wall and wood characterization within the context of genome-based gene discovery, which is part of a five-year project presently running in Oak Ridge. The purpose is to understand the biosynthesis of cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin and identify important genes as a base for an increased production of biofuels. He also touched upon a common problem facing many researchers: the impatience shown by sponsoring authorities and industry when it comes to achieving project results quickly.

Bjarne Holmbom’s studies have increased the interest in utilizing different spruce extractive components for new healthcare products

Lignins lower cancer risks

Bjarne Holmbom, professor at Åbo Akademi in Finland and receiver of The Marcus Wallenberg Prize in 2008, presented his work about lignins and other bioactive polyphenols in wood and bark of Nordic trees, especially in Norway spruce.

"Spruce knots constitute a rich and easily accessible source for production of the bioactive lignan hydroxymatairesinol (HMR)," he said. This is a strong antioxidant and animal studies have shown that it can inhibit the growth of cancer tumours, especially breast and prostate cancers. A method has been developed to separate knots from ordinary wood chips and HMR is now extracted on licence by the Swiss company Linnea S.A for its product HMRlignan.

"The organosolv process may experience a renaissance, not for pulp production but as a method for using hardwood as raw material source for chemicals, said Jürgen Puls professor at vTI, Institute of Wood Technology and Wood Biology, in Hamburg. In a project entering its third phase, and in which big German chemical companies participate, a pilot plant in Halle is planned to verify the results achieved in laboratory scale. A process has been elaborated for the conversion of beech and poplar wood into platform chemicals. This is a potentially very big market.

Participants from the Umeå Plant Science Centre study one of many posters that showed research being conducted within the tree biotechnology and wood biorefinery sectors

Grateful

"We are grateful that this conference was held in Örnsköldsvik where the biorefinery companies Domsjö Fabriker and Sekab have come a long way within industrialized biorefining, said Clas Engström, managing director Processum Biorefinery Initiative. "I am sure that the cooperation with Umeå University, SLU and Umeå Plant Science Centre, world leader within its field, increased the interest of so many very qualified speakers and participants to come to Örnsköldsvik."

"Never before has a meeting like this taken place. The genetic researchers got an insight into what is already now produced from wood and how present and coming research results can be turned into products replacing oil one way or another," Enstrom added. "On the other hand, "biorefiners" like me got a better understanding of what biotechnology can do in terms of, for example, modifying lignin content and wood density. It is not only a matter of making trees grow faster."

"I came here for many reasons. The program looked very interesting with a wide touch and contained everything from nano to macro scale," Ross Whetten, professor at North Carolina State University, confirmed. "The speakers and their competences definitely contributed to the high number of participants. It is of course trickier to get to Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden than to Stockholm. However, this location was a true advantage as we could make study visits to see profitable biorefining in practice."

As the conference took place during the midsummer week, a maypole was of course prepared and raised during the last conference dinner

Hot topics

The three-day conference clearly demonstrated the comprehensive research going on worldwide to improve wood raw material in terms of usefulness and growth. Big national and government supported tree biotechnology and wood biorefining projects have started during the last years in places such as the US, Brazil, South Africa and Europe. The uses for biomass and its components are increasing greatly and span from the traditional forest industry products to energy, new materials, chemicals, food and health products. Trees and other plants have the potential to become important raw material sources with a wide range of uses.

Although there is a vast amount of research going on, its results must have users, either industrial companies or entrepreneurs who find profitable applications. So far there are only a few full-scale biorefineries. The development has come a long way and is no longer limited to the traditional forest products industry as financially strong chemical industry companies are also considering wood as raw material source.

Long or short?

As a cellulose chemist it is important to keep the molecules as long and undamaged as possible, one participant at the conference said. However, the chemical industry has a totally different view, as to them it is a matter of breaking the different tree molecules down to monomers and assembling them as new polymers. So the question is if the wood should be a monomer raw material source or if, in the future, the traditional pulping process will be the main process and the side streams more or less profitable contributions? Or will it be both? Anyhow, there will be changes!

Other attendees also had positive things to say about the inaugural event. "Often researchers and industry people meet at conferences within their respective areas," said Björn Sundberg. "Here we brought experts from both the raw material and the process areas together. This brings the development further as the participants get a better overview as everyone's horizons and networks expanded."

"This conference has contributed to improved and strengthened networks between researchers with different specialities and industry representatives," Jack Saddler, professor at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, added. "I would gladly see the next conference of this kind to take place in Vancouver. This initiative must continue."

More information about the conference is available athttp://http://biorefinery2010.funcfiber.se.