Enchanted Forests

 By Erin Biba

The demand for biodiesel around the world is experiencing a significant upswing and one of the most popular new forms of creating it is done by harvesting the raw byproducts of the wood processing industry. There are several small companies involved in this research. Erin Biba explains how you can produce fuel from wood. Not only in Finland and Sweden…

The demand for biodiesel around the world is experiencing a significant upswing. In Europe specifically, regulations that require fuel distributors to replace a portion of their product with biofuel — and tax breaks for those that do — mean that many companies are finding new ways to sustainably harvest fuel from natural resources. One of the most popular new forms of creating biodiesel is done by harvesting the raw byproducts of the wood processing industry. That’s right, the latest innovation in biodiesel is coming from trees.

Sweden-based SunPine is one of the companies currently using the tree-derived tall oil to produce biodiesel. Tall oil is a byproduct of the forestry industry — when trees like pine, spruce or birch are reduced to pulp in mills, the dissolved wood releases a resinous substance called calcium soap, which makes an effective base for biodiesel. After the soap is washed and acidified it becomes tall oil. The oil is mixed with bio methanol and sulphuric acid, a process called esterification, which results in converting the oil to crude diesel fuel, which is then sent to a refinery for processing. Nearly 65 to 75 percent of refined oil can be extracted from the crude base. The remaining fuel, called pitch fuel, is another renewable resource that is returned to the originating pulp mills along with other byproducts. Production of crude oil from SunPine’s new facility began in the Spring of 2010.

UPM BioVerno diesel story

UPM Biofuels, based in Finland, has also been extracting diesel from tall oil. UPM has been harvesting the oil, known as BioVerno, from pulp mills and focuses on promoting sustainable forestry. UPM only use trees that come from legal, traceable sources and more than 50 percent of their raw materials originate within Finland. The resulting fuel can be used in any diesel engine. In fact, the company has done thorough testing on vehicles. From 2013 to 2014, UPM completed a fleet test with a blend of 20 percent BioVerno and 80 percent fossil diesel with four cars traveling 20,000 km (12,427 miles) each. They found that fuel consumption and gas emissions with the tall oil-based fuel was on par with traditional diesel and that the engines of the cars running on the new form of fuel performed normally. Additionally, UPM claims that the biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent compared to traditional diesel.

In 2015, UPM opened its first wood-based oil refinery in Lappeenranta, Finland. With a construction cost of about $195 million, the refinery will produce about 120 million liters (31 million gallons) of BioVerno every year. And a contract with North European Oil Trade guarantees that the diesel produced will be put to good use. Especially considering that Finland has required all of its fuel distributors to meet a 20 percent biofuel target by 2020 — BioVerno fuel is expected to help the country meet 25 percent of that goal.

about the author
Erin Biba
Erin Biba is a freelance reporter and Correspondent for WIRED Magazine. Based in San Francisco she covers science and its intersection with technology and pop culture.