From: Maury Thompson, The Post-Star
Published January 24, 2007 09:59 AM

Getting More from Wood

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. -- You can heat your house with Adirondack wood. Someday, you'll be able to fuel your car with it, too.


A Lewis County energy company is expected to begin making small batches of ethanol from wood products next year.


Researchers and government officials say the alternative energy market can play a major role in sustaining traditional forestry and what's left of the paper industry in the Adirondack Park and surrounding counties.


"Under the most optimistic scenario, a pulp mill could double its profitability," said Ted Wegner, assistant director for wood, fiber and composite research at Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


There are plenty of trees to support an emerging renewable energy market and still maintain healthy forests.


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Currently only about one-third of the growth potential of forests in the United States is being utilized, said Gary Scott, a professor in the paper and bioprocess engineering department at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.


But industry officials say years of research and development are necessary before ethanol begins to affect the bottom line of area paper mills and logging companies.


"It's certainly feasible," said Roger Dziengeleski, vice president of woodlands for Finch, Pruyn & Co. of Glens Falls.


Research centers around making ethanol from a by-product left over from the pulp-making process.


Wood fibers have three basic components: cellulose, which gives fibers strength, lignin, which is like a glue, and hemicellulose, which is like a bridge that joins the other two, Scott said.


Researchers have developed a method to extract the hemicellulose from the fiber at the beginning of the pulp-making process.


The hemicellulose, a sugar, could then be distilled into ethanol.


Currently, hemicellulose is left at the end of the pulp-making process in the form of a black liquor that paper mills typically burn as a secondary fuel source, Scott said.


The sugar, he said, could be better utilized as ethanol.


The challenge is to develop the market so it is more profitable to sell off the hemicellulose at the beginning of the process than burn it afterward.


"The technology is there to do this. Basically the economics is the bottleneck," said Dan Gilmore, forester for the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental organization.


Researchers at the SUNY forestry school have been working in cooperation with International Paper Co. and Catalyst Renewables Corp. to perfect the technology.


In December, the state announced a $10.3 million grant for Catalyst Renewables to develop a small scale research and refinery operation next to an existing wood-powered energy plant at Lyonsdale, in Lewis County.


"It's a very large laboratory and incubator process, if you will," said Derek Benson, director of business development for Catalyst Renewables.


Researchers will work over a three-year period to demonstrate and refine the process to test the viability of building a large scale refinery operation elsewhere.


Researchers will extract hemicellulose from wood chips before the wood is burned at the energy plant.


Some of those wood chips may come from the local area.


American Tree Co. of Queensbury, a wood recycling company, supplies wood chips to the Lewis County plant, said John Stranahan, co-owner of the Queensbury company.


Elsewhere in New York, Mascoma Corp. received a $14.8 million state grant in December to build a renewable energy plant near Rochester, in cooperation with several colleges and private companies.


A former brewery in Fulton (Oswego County) is being converted to an ethanol plant.


Initially, the plant will make ethanol from corn grown in the Midwest, but the expectation is it will eventually switch to wood, said Scott, of the SUNY forestry school.


Researchers say the ethanol market could become commercially viable in 10 to 15 years.


U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport, has said she plans to establish a task force to explore ways to develop the industry in the 20th Congressional District.


U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, will reintroduce legislation this week to provide tax credits for building ethanol plants in states such as New York where there is limited production, said Joshua Vlasto, the senator's spokesman.


The first challenge is to develop the industry to the point where the retail price for ethanol is about two-thirds the price of gasoline, said Wegner, of the Forest Products Laboratory.


Beyond that, he said, researchers must develop other more lucrative products that can be made from hemicellulose extracted from wood.


Wood ethanol alone will be, at best, a break-even proposition for pulp mills, he said.


Other potentially more profitable uses may include refining hemicellulose into chemicals used to make plastic or nanotechnology fibers.


Pulp mills can play a part in the overall emerging industry because they already have established wood collection systems that can supply other ventures, Wegner said.


Area farmers also may benefit as the industry matures.


SUNY forestry college researchers are developing a species of willow tree that could be planted on farm land.


"It's actually more of a shrub (than a tree)," Scott said.


After one year, farmers would cut off the tops of the saplings, then let them grow three more years before harvesting with modified farm equipment.


"The willow is going to go in almost like a field of corn," said Robert Riley, owner of Locust Hill Logging and Firewood in Greenwich.


Natural Resources Research Institute at University of Minnesota Deluth has developed a hybrid fast-growing species of poplar tree.


"You can get ready-to-harvest size in as few as seven years," said June Kallestad, an institute spokeswoman.


Researchers and foresters say emerging products such as ethanol will supplement traditional products.


"Hopefully there will always be saw logs growing in the forest," said Gilmore, of the Residents Committee.


Ethanol can replace some of the demand for lower grade wood that has been lost as many pulp mills closed in the region over the past two decades.


Market conditions worsened recently when Domtar Paper Co. closed a pulp mill in Cornwall, Ontario, said Sloane Crawford, forest utilization specialist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.


Loggers in northern New York partially suppled the Canadian mill before it closed.


Emerging products such as ethanol are just a continuation of an industry that is steadily evolving, Dziengeleski said.


Finch Pruyn, for example, started more than a century ago as a sawmill, before shifting to making newsprint and, later, printing and writing papers.


New products are nice, but government also needs to focus on insuring a stabile business climate and consistent regulatory policies, Dziengeleski said.


"Just putting money out there for pilot projects is just the first small step, in my opinion," he said.


Establishing a state policy to make sure privately owned forest land in the Adirondack Park can continually be logged would be a good start, Dziengeleski said.


"The highest thing you can do as a government is to make sure trees are available to use," he said.


In recent years, the state primarily has bought development rights rather than buying land outright, said Crawford, of the DEC.


Logging on state-owned land in the Adirondack Park is forbidden under the forever wild clause of the state Constitution.


But logging can continue when the state buys only the development rights.


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Copyright © 2007, The Post-Star, Glens Falls, N.Y.


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