From wood waste to valuable energy

It was not long ago that northern BC was dotted with hundreds of beehive burners. Colocated with sawmills, beehive burners simply burned off excess waste wood that was a byproduct of manufactured lumber. While being simple and convenient, this process wasted all the energy in that wood waste. As the economy becomes more competitive, and as the industry must come to terms with less fibre supply, turning that wood waste into something valuable is becoming increasingly important. Luckily, there is a lot of raw energy in waste wood and combined with some innovative entrepreneurs in northern BC, it is possible to convert that raw energy into value added forms of heat, electricity and transport fuels.

Converting wood waste into heat is the simplest and most efficient way of converting waste wood into valuable energy. Many sawmills and pulp mills have already started to burn their waste wood into onsite heat that they need anyway. As well as making good use of the waste wood, this allows them to reduce their consumption of natural gas at the same time. UNBC has gone a step further by bringing in waste wood to heat their main campus. Using made in B.C. gasification technology, they first turn waste wood into a combustible gas which is then burnt to heat the campus. The UNBC plant is a demonstration project for what could potentially be used to heat remote northern B.C. communities that do not have access to natural gas and have an excess supply of wood.

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Electricity is another value added form of energy that we can derive from our waste wood and indeed we are already doing that. By converting wood waste into small pellets that can be burnt in retrofitted coal power plants, waste wood can effectively be turned into electricity that is much less polluting than the coal it is replacing. Pinnacle Renewable Energy is a good example of a northern BC success story that has commercialized this process; they export wood pellets around the world. Looking forward, there are even more innovative technologies in this area. For example, those pellets can be further processed into artificial charcoal. This process removes the waste products from the wood and leaves a more energy dense product that has even more value.

Oil is the most versatile, energy dense, and therefore valuable form of energy. There is a lot of potential value to be created if that wood waste could be converted into something that can supplant oil. We haven't seen a breakthrough yet but there is a lot of work going on in this area, some of it in northern BC. In the laboratory, waste wood has already been converted into a synthetic form of diesel and the focus now is to industrialize the process. As the technology is perfected and as diesel prices keep rising, this should happen eventually.

Beehive burners are a relic of the past. The days when we could burn off material that could be turned into something valuable are over. In order to remain competitive in the global economy, we will need to convert that waste into all types of valuable energy. Northern BC companies have pioneered this movement and hopefully they will continue that trend into the future.

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