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The delicious smell of French fries wafted through the frigid air as I walked down St. Catherine Street in Montreal. Succumbing to my craving, I began to look around for the source of this tasty snack, and made a surprising (albeit disappointing) discovery, that it was in fact coming from the sidewalk snow plow in front of me. This machine was running on a biodiesel fuel derived from vegetable oil from local deep fryers, and is one of the great examples of biofuel use in Canada.

Currently, most of us who are not directly in the biofuel industry are only vaguely aware of its automotive use in Canada; primarily because we are not affected in major ways by its production or use. Despite this, the national government has a policy that 5% of gasoline mixtures must be ethanol, and 2% of diesel and heating oil must be biodiesel. There is a reason for this major push by policy makers; mainly that biofuel is essentially a carbon neutral fuel. Carbon neutral means that the greenhouse gas produced from burning the fuel is absorbed by the plants used to produce it. Apart from this, there are many advantages such as energy security, rural community support, the fuel’s great energy density, and others.

Advantages

From the early days of civilization, biofuels have played a vital role in society. Fuels like wood provided an easily storable, renewable, and accessible energy source (among other uses). These same advantages remain true today. With increasingly depleted oil reserves, companies must resort to deeper and more challenging methods and locations for extraction, prompting a growing interest in alternative fuels.

In addition to their renewability, biofuels offer countries greater energy security, as almost all locations can grow some form of biofuel feedstocks. A prime example of this is the Canadian wood pellet industry. By compressing material that would otherwise be wasted (bark, sawmill residues, etc.) into burnable wood pellets, a new industry producing the pellets has sprouted up in locations such as British Columbia. These pellets are used domestically, exported to Europe, and offer a green alternative to the likes of coal.

woodpellets

Wood Pellets

Unique Challenges

Brazil is an interesting example of a sustainable and functioning biofuel economy. Sugar cane ethanol accounts for 25% of the country’s total energy use, and consumers have a choice between an E25 blend (25% ethanol/ 75% gasoline), or a pure E100 ethanol fuel. Brazil also has its own developed fleet of flex fuel cars, which work with any ethanol/gas blend. With such a successful model to work from, it seems it would be trivial to apply the same principles in Canada.  Unfortunately, like any agriculture project, such a transition depends immensely on climate, soil, population locations, and other external factors. So what options exist in Canada?

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The first things that surprises most visitors in Canada is its size and its variability of climate. These factors control what grows where in Canada, and cause very specific issues that the population and farmers face.  Even in its relatively southern parts (e.g. Montreal), it is not uncommon to experience winter weather as low as -45°C (-49F), while the summer heat often reaches 37°C (99F). This poses an immediate problem for bio-diesel, which begins to turn into gel at lower temperatures (<10 ⁰C), clogging injectors and generally not flowing through the system. Such temperatures also limit what can be grown regionally; and indoor, year round, facilities for crops are much more costly to operate than their outdoor alternatives.

The other Canadian characteristic is the amount of land. While Canada is the second largest country in the world, it only has 7.3% of its land mass as farmland (2006), compared to 41.8% of Brazil (1996). Apart from the difference, we have an enormous amount of forests (53.8% of total surface area). This forest cover is an amazing natural resource, but also restricts access to remote locations and makes feedstock transportation very challenging.

Canadian Forests     canmapgeo

Solutions

All these factors mean that Canada’s approach to biofuels must be individually tailored to be successful.

The wood from our enormous forests can be simply burned, but it can also be converted to liquid fuel (bio-oil) through techniques like pyrolysis. This bio-oil is used as a fuel, but is also used to create value-added products for the pharmaceutical and food industries.

Bio-oil

The cold weather can also be addressed by technological solutions. One can use B20 blends normally in cold weather (20% biodiesel mix), or designs like secondary fuel tanks and tank heating allow for biodiesel use year round. The growth of crops in cold weather is solved by simply picking the appropriate plant for the climate, with woody plants being the best suited for Canada’s climate in general.

As anyone living in the north will tell you, everything needs to be adapted to geography: not only obvious things like clothes and homes, but also fuels: the crops must be resilient, and transportation must be carefully arranged. Biofuels offer an amazing opportunity for greenhouse gas reduction, energy independence, and economic growth in Canada; and with ever advancing engineering; the covered issues are become more and more manageable, leading to greener energy, and allowing everyone to breathe easier.

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