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Have you ever noticed that fewer people read the newspaper in its printed form anymore?  The decline in demand for the classic newspaper has resulted in turmoil in the newsprint industry, causing the closure of several newsprint pulp mills worldwide that produce “mechanical pulp”. The mechanical pulp is the pulp that is used to make newspapers. These mill closures have created a potential glut of idle mechanical pulping equipment.  This is where our job in Project 3 of BioFuelNet begins!

In Project 3, entitled “Bioconversion”, we work on a process called “biological conversion” which is one of the few biofuel production platforms that has recently found its way to commercialization.  In Canada, we are blessed with an abundance of woody biomass. However, the majority of biological conversion is performed on agricultural biomass, which is much easier to break down to a liquid fuel compared to wood that was designed by nature to “stay together”.

During biological conversion, we need a “pretreatment”. This “opens up” the biomass so that enzymes that originate from wood-degrading fungi (that you can find when hiking in the forest) can access and break down the large carbohydrate chains, which make up wood, down to sugars such as glucose in a process called “hydrolysis”.  These sugars can then be converted to biofuels such as ethanol and butanol through “fermentation” similar to beer and wine.

Mechanical refiner and steam gun equipment at UBC for pretreatment

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The good news is mechanical pulping processes that are usually used to make pulp for newspapers can process wood that is hard to break down. The equipment is also readily available! Furthermore, I have been working on pulping chemistry/engineering for half my life!

Therefore, our work in Project 3,  which  was described at the BioFuelNet Advanced Biofuels Syposium, focuses on studying methods to convert mechanical pulping processes typically used for making newsprint to “pretreatments” that can be used to make biofuels and biochemicals from woody biomass.

Our project 3 research team at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I am working with Dr. Jack Saddler, focuses on the mechanical pulping and steam pretreatment processes to improve their capabilities for producing biofuels and bio-products from wood!

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UBC pretreatment team (Richard Chandra is the left in the first row on the floor)

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