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What are Bioproducts?
What are bioproducts?
Biomass is any type of organic material that is available on a renewable or recurring basis. It includes such things as crops and trees, wood and wood wastes, aquatic plants and grasses. Bioproducts are products that are made from biomass.
Until 200 years ago, most of the world’s demand for energy and materials was met by using biomass. For example, people burned wood and peat to cook and heat their homes, and they used plant and animal matter to make tools, clothes and dyes.
This dependency on biomass often led to serious environmental problems. Forest in many countries were decimated, plant and animal biodiversity decreased, and smoke from wood fires caused significant air pollution. Similar trends can be seen today in developing countries that rely on biomass for energy and materials. The use of biomass by industry today must include ways to avoid these problems and ensure that the industrial use of biological materials is clean and sustainable.
Bioproducts today include everything from electrical power and liquid fuels to products, such as shampoos, plastics, fabrics and solvents. They are manufactured using energy, chemicals or processes derived from biological materials (living organisms and dead mater).
In large measure, they come from forestry, agricultural and aquatic sources. They may or may not involve the use of advanced technologies, such as genetic engineering. For the purposes of this Primer, Bioproducts refer to household, commercial and industrial products, but not to the food, feed and fibre we currently get from traditional uses of crops and trees.
The term "bioproducts” refers to a wide array of industrial and commercial products that are characterized by a variety of properties, compositions and processes, as well as different benefits and risks. Thus, the term "bioproducts” is one of convenience; a careful consideration of bioproducts requires an examination of the characteristics of particular bioproducts and the issues they raise on a case-by-case basis.
Bioproducts are important to us because the biomass used in their manufacture provides either a complement or an alternative to petroleum and petrochemicals. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is renewable and has the capacity to quickly replenish itself using energy from the sun.
Fossil fuels are ubiquitous in our everyday lives. For instance, according to the US Energy Information Administration, they comprise more than 85 per cent of the world’s primary energy supple. In Canada, oil products are used to fuel cars, homes and factories. They also provide the raw material for many different commercial and manufacturing industries. According to the Canadian Electricity Association, fossil fuel-powered thermal generators supply about 28 per cent of the electricity we use.
Petroleum also plays a key role as a critical ingredient in many products. Early in the 20th century, petroleum derived chemicals were used to make rayon – the first human-made fibre. These chemicals are now present in many fabrics, such as nylon, polyester and elastic. The plastics used in computers, medical components, kitchen utensils and upholstery are also produced using chemicals derived from petroleum and other fossil fuels.
In contrast, bioproducts use renewable biomass as a complement or alternative to non-renewable petroleum-based feedstocks. The use of bioproducts could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as a source of raw materials in the manufacturing and processing of many industrial products.
Why bioproducts now?
In the past 50 years, our understanding of the world and its various life forms has changed in profound ways. Science and technology are moving at a rapid pace and improving our knowledge of biology at the molecular level. Developments in the biological and life sciences, as well as thermo-chemistry, have led to discoveries of new ways to break down and use biological material. Research is making possible new industrial products and processes that use biomass instead of fossil fuels.
From these new methods and materials, biobased fuels, bioplastics and biobased health products are emerging. These bioproducts could mark the beginning of a shift to a biobased economy that eventually relies on renewable biological materials to supply energy, chemicals and other products.
Associated with this shift is an increasing interest by academia, industry and governments in exploring whether a biobased economy could offer Canada an opportunity to build on our existing resource strengths and industries, while reducing pollution and enhancing economic development in rural areas.
Scientists and governments around the world are concerned about gases generated from the use of fossil fuels. These gases (including billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, or CO2) prevent heat from leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and are causing global climate change, the effects of which include rising temperatures and increasingly severe weather. Scientists have come to recognize the important role that plants play in absorbing and regulating the concentration of global greenhouse gases.
Industry and governments are examining whether a Canadian biobased economy – one developed to minimize the adverse environmental and social impacts of bioproducts – could help reduce our overall greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, the use of bioproducts in Canada’s energy and transportation industries (e.g., electricity generated using biomass fuels, or automobile fuels made from plants) can be useful in the fight against climate change.
Each year, according to estimates by Stanford University biologist Peter Vitousek and his colleagues, approximately 224 billion tonnes of new biomass (by dry weight) are generated by photosynthetic plants worldwide. Biomass currently provides about 15 per cent of the energy used by people around the world and meets 35 per cent of the energy needs of developing countries. In Canada, millions of tonnes of biomass are harvested every year as trees and crops from forests and farms. While biomass currently supplies just six per cent of Canada’s primary energy demand, the BIOCAP Canada Foundation estimates that, if collecting and processing it were feasible, the amount of unused biomass left on fields and forest cut sites after harvest could supply 27 per cent of the energy we now get from fossil fuels.
Where are bioproducts found?
Although many consumers may not realize it, bioproducts are present in most Canadian households.
For instance, wood is a traditional bioproduct that people have been using in fires to heat homes and cook meals for thousand of years. Today, many forest companies use wood residues to generate heat and electrical power for their own operations.
Other, less traditional products of biological materials and processes – now available or under development – include some types of shingles, insulation, plastics, carpet, linoleum, fibreboard, specialty paper, fabric, packaging, cleaners, solvents, paints, shampoo, cosmetics, soap, lubricants, detergents and biofuels, such as bioethanol and biodiesel.
Fuel ethanol made from the starch of corn is a bioproduct that is becoming a common feature at gasoline pumps. More than 600 service stations across Canada now offer fuel with bioethanol blended in as an additive. Technology to improve the acquisition of fuel ethanol from corn and other cellulose-based material is advancing rapidly. This would allow the use of waste agricultural and forest biomass without detracting from the use of the material as a food source.
Corn and other plants, such as wheat, that re rich in starch may also become the source of wax used to polish cars, or they may become ingredients in the glue used in home renovation projects.
Hemp, a plant long outlawed because of its close relatedness to marijuana, is used as an ingredient in clothes, cosmetics, moisturizers and lotions. It could also be blended into the plastic of interior car door panels and dashboards to make them stronger and more durable.
Bioproducts are already found in cosmetic kits and bathroom cabinets. Products from oil seeds and plant material are frequently used in the manufacture of soaps and shampoos. Algae are used to produce natural colours for use in cosmetics.
A chemical known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is often used as a floor covering. This petroleum-based product could be replaced by linoleum produced from plant fibres and resins. Artists paints that once used petroleum-based azo pigments can now use dyes available in plants.
Bioproducts and the Carbon Cycle
One of the most important differences between bioproducts industries and fossil fuel-based industries is the relationship each of these has with the carbon cycle and, in particular, the trapping of energy from the sun through photosynthesis.
The carbon cycle refers to the flow of carbon – a common chemical element crucial to the chemistry of life – from an inorganic state to an organic state (i.e., biomass) and back again.
Using energy-rich biomass to "close” the carbon cycle.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the inorganic form of carbon that is incorporated into living organisms through photosynthesis, a process that stores energy from the sun in carbon-based molecules within the biomass of vegetation and other organisms. Our bodies get carbon and the energy it stores by eating plants and the animals that eat plants.
Today, most societies get the energy and chemicals they need from fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas. These come from ancient plant material and other biomass that has been sequestered underground and away from the active carbon cycle for many millions of years.
When we use fossil fuels, we open the active carbon cycle to an additional source of carbon (from CO2 emissions), throwing the natural cycle off-balance. The resulting increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been linked to climate change.
The use of biomass, on the other hand, has the potential (if managed properly) to be a "CO2 neutral” source of energy and chemicals, essentially closing he carbon cycle. The CO2 absorbed by and incorporated in this biomass could be enough to offset the CO2 generated by biomass industry processes.
How are bioproducts made?
Bioproducts are made using biomass as a raw material. Raw materials for industry can also use biomass left over from conventional agriculture, forestry and marine activities, as well as municipal works and industrial processes. The biomass may have little economic value and may be waste material that would otherwise be expensive to dispose of, such as manure and municipal landfill wastes. Such materials, however, become valuable as biomass. As they generate methane through microbial processing, they can be used to generate electricity.
Biomass may also be specifically grown to serve an industrial purpose. In some cases, crops and trees are selected or engineered to provide biomass of a particular quality and composition to make processing it both technologically and economically feasible.
Manufacturing bioproducts from biomass involves a variety of industrial techniques. For instance, new methods for the thermochemical processing of biomass (such as pyrolysis) are used to generate biobased oil and gas. These fuels can, in turn, be used to power electrical generators and motors. Fermentation is also used to make bioproducts and biofuels.
Some bioproducts do not require biomass as a raw material. Instead, they use inorganic raw materials, but involve industrial techniques that use biological enzymes or microbial processing during their manufacture.
Pyrolysis is a process that uses heat to decompose biomass in the absence of oxygen. Ground up biomass is exposed to temperatures of just under 500ºC, converting it to char and gases. The gases are then rapidly cooled, and some of them condense into pyrolysis oil. The pyrolysis oil is a mixture of water and many different organic compounds. It can be burned as is for fuel, or can be refined to yield useful industrial chemicals and higher quality fuel. The gases that are produced during pyrolysis can be burned to create heat to keep the process going.
Identifying the issues
The arrival of new bioproducts in the lives of most Canadians could go unnoticed. For example, people who add a biobased cream to their cosmetic bags, or a biodetergent to their household cleaning products, may be unaware that these products are part of a raw material and process shift by industry.
For many people, the strongest indication that Canada’s industry and economy are undergoing fundamental change will be public debates in the media concerning the environmental, health, social and ethical implications of the increased industrial use of biomass and the attendant technologies used by bioproducts industries. In this regard, it is likely that negative implications about the use of biomass will also be discussed inlight of continued fossil fuel use and associated pollution and climate change issues.
The appropriate use of land and water resources is an issue that has arisen from the development of industrial bioproducts. Good arable land is limited, and the question is whether we can grow crops for industry and still have enough land available to grow food. Similar questions have arisen in the forest sector. Changes in the way land and water are currently used can have environmental consequences and create conflicts among users.
Other concerns relate to conflicts about ensuring that the risks and benefits of bioproduct development are fairly distributed. Some organizations, including he ETC Group of Winnipeg (formerly the Rural Advancement Foundation International), fear that inadequate patent laws and other biotechnology regulations ensure that large corporations, rather than rural communities and developing nations involved in the production of biomass raw materials, will disproportionately control and benefit from the development of bioproduct technologies.
Controversial forms of biotechnology, such as genetic engineering, are used in the manufacture of some bioproducts. In bioproducts industries, gene transfer between organisms can be used to isolate and enhance the performance of micro-organisms and their catalyzing enzymes and to increase the production capacity of trees and crops. This is of concern to some people, although not as controversial as the use of genetically modified organisms in food crops.
If old growth forests and other ecosystems that store large amounts of carbon are used to grow biomass crops and fast-growing trees that have lower carbon densities, then bioproducts industries – often promoted as a means to help fight climate change – could contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. Large areas of land devoted to single biomass crops for industry might also threaten biodiversity (just as monoculture farming for food presents the same risk). However, energy plantations from forest biomass may be planted on abandoned farmlands, which could reduce the pressure to harvest natural forests.
Intensive growing of crops and trees could place unusually high demands on community water supplies. Plantations of trees, however, are far less likely to compromise water supplies than are agricultural crop species or even many natural grasses and herbs. Such plantations may be a good way to make marginal lands productive. The large quantities of pesticides or fertilizer required to grow some crops could also have an adverse impact on the environment. This impact can be considerably reduced by cultivating fast-growing trees, for example, since it is usually only in the first year or two of the rotation that chemicals are used, rather than every year. For trees that are coppiced, pesticides and fertilizers may not be used at all.
Bioproducts concerns may be offset by the benefits of using biomass in industry. The downside of bioproducts technologies, or of biomass production, may be weighed in public debates against promises of sustainable development, including the use of renewable resources as industrial feedstocks, improved conservation, and various environmental, social and economic benefits.
The benefits, risks and issues raised by bioproducts make it critical that Canadians become well informed and able to participate in discussions about future directions and policies. This primer is designed to inform the debate.
Fermentation is a process that uses micro-organisms to perform a chain of biochemical reactions that turn sugar into other products, such as alcohols and organic acids. Before starchy biomass sources (e.g., corn) can be fermented, the starches first need to be broken down into simple sugars. This is usually done by exposing the biomass to high temperatures after adding an enzyme to act as a catalyst. Once the starches have been broken down, a micro-organism, such as yeast, is added. The micro-organism digest the sugars and produces carbon dioxide and other compounds. The micro-organism species used during fermentation depends on the desired end product. For example, a yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae is used to ferment corn and sugar cane into fuel ethanol. This is the same species that has been used for centuries in brewing and baking.
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