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By Michael Chae, PhD, Biorefining Conversions and Fermentation Laboratory, University of Alberta

The Christmas season is upon us once more and for me, this means that I will be spending a lot more time sitting near a fireplace with my family.  If I had to guess, I would imagine that this pastime is something that is near and dear to many families at this time of year, not just mine.  And for those that do not have a fireplace in their home, but are still longing for the festive environment, numerous videos of a crackling fire are available through YouTube and Netflix.

For some people, however, the fire that will be slowly dying while they are still good-bying will not be fueled by burning a Yule log, but by clean-burning wood pellets.

Wood pellets are a type of fuel derived from byproducts of the forestry sector, such as sawdust and other leftovers from lumber mills, as well as branches and other woody objects lying on the forest floor.  These materials are dried, ground into uniform particles, and then compacted into small cylindrical pieces.  The pressing of wood pellets is performed at relatively high temperatures (120-130°C), which softens the lignin, allowing it to act as a natural binder.

While wood pellets are generally more expensive than firewood, they contain much less water (below 10%) and are much denser.  These attributes enable wood pellets to burn much more efficiently (producing minimal amounts of smoke in the process) and make wood pellets easier to transport than firewood, respectively.

Wood pellets

According to researchers at Mississippi State University and the University of Tennessee, one ton of wood pellets has the same fuel value of 120 gallons of heating oil, 16,000 ft3 of natural gas, or 4,775 kilowatt hours of electricity.  On top of this, wood pellets are considered by some to be “carbon neutral” since the carbon dioxide released during combustion was originally captured from the atmosphere as the tree was growing.  However, others argue that this is misleading as the energy consumed during production and shipping raises the carbon footprint of wood pellets.  Nevertheless, wood pellets are clean burning and are gaining popularity worldwide, particularly in places where other sources of energy are much more expensive.

Based on data from FutureMetrics, the Global demand for wood pellets is expected to increase from just over 10 million tons in 2014 to over 30 million tones in 2024.  Furthermore, according to Natural Resources Canada, in 2012, Canada exported over 1.3 million tons of wood pellets, with 84% of these destined for countries in the European Union.  Thus, the increasing demand for wood pellets represents a huge opportunity for producers in Canada where residues from the forestry sector are so abundant.

As energy prices trend upward and governments adopt policies that promote the use of renewable fuels, there is no doubt that the popularity of wood pellets will continue to increase.  Who knows?   Maybe by next Christmas, you will be roasting your chestnuts on a pellet stove rather than an open fire.

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