Manufacturers Go Green to Gain Goodwill

Sept. 4, 2009
Companies can go green by utilizing biomass energy products.

Regardless of the type of widget you manufacture, a growing number of employees and customers want to deal with firms who have a low carbon footprint. This objective isn't all warm fuzzies about the environment, but a strategic priority. Manufacturing green is good for business: It helps manufacturers broaden their customer base, supplier network and workforce by attracting engaged partners who prefer to do business with environmentally responsible organizations.

That consumers are embracing green products over conventional products is reality. A 2008 Boston Consulting Group study of consumers in the U.S. and several European nations revealed that green products have a higher perceived value. Perhaps as a result, we see Wal-Mart announcing it will assign "green" ratings to every product it sells. The growing number of hybrid and electric vehicles is a powerful indicator of consumer sentiment as well.

It's not news that globally manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint throughout their manufacturing facilities, processes and supply chains. Other evidence is The Green Manufacturing Expo, which features green ideas from energy, materials, packaging, machinery and more. Manufacturers have embraced solar, wind and smart grid technologies to employ green power in their facilities or to enable off-grid operation, at least to some level.

Gaining attention now by manufacturers are climate-friendly motor fuels derived from biomass. Advanced biofuels from renewable sources offer new ways for manufacturers to go green and address their environmental sustainability initiatives.

Many of these opportunities are nearing reality. It's important to note though that while some next generation biofuels themselves are low carbon and emit fewer greenhouse gases, some biofuels production methods can themselves help to reduce a firm's carbon footprint. One such technology that is essentially carbon neutral, however, is a process using an entrained flow black liquor gasification biorefinery.

While manufacturers are not likely to add such biorefinery capability to their infrastructure -- though many pulp and paper mills are exploring this opportunity -- they can still go green by utilizing biomass energy products. For example:

  • Requiring low-carbon or carbon-neutral trucks powered by biofuels be used for shipping and receiving.
  • Operating machinery and materials handling equipment on biofuels.
  • Using green chemicals such as bio-methanol in the manufacturing process to replace traditional formaldehydes and other conventional alcohols, polymers and acetones.
  • Using off-grid generators powered by biofuels
  • Using bio-materials to create sustainable packaging

This gasification process, pioneered by Sweden's Chemrec AB, uses as its sole feedstock an existing waste stream of the pulp mill process called black liquor. This energy-rich carbon-based waste is then converted at the biorefinery into a variety of carbon-neutral products, including such biofuels as methanol, dimethyl ether (DME), ethanol, synthetic diesel and gasoline or green feedstocks for biochemicals or green electricity/power generation.

Major truck engine manufacturers have tested a variety of these fuels. Volvo, for example, in its tests, reports that its engines modified moderately to run on DME were carbon-neutral and got very high well-to-wheel efficiency. Most recently, Ford Europe announced plans to test DME engines. Material handling equipment run on DME, which is supplied to its point of use as propane, can further enable manufacturers to reduce their carbon-based energy costs while lowering their carbon footprint. Major chemical companies are investigating green chemicals produced by this process to help them produce carbon-neutral green products.

This black liquor gasification biomass-to-energy technology is nearing commercial scale operation. A Chemrec biorefinery in Pite, Sweden earlier this summer passed 10,000 hours of accumulated operating time. This unique facility is the only gasification plant in the world producing high-quality synthesis gas based on 100% renewable feedstock. Syngas is the feedstock for biofuels production. The company is evaluating biorefinery opportunities now in Minnesota, Tennessee, Maine and Georgia. Manufacturers and chemicals producers located in those states and other heavily forested states having paper industries are well positioned to utilize the green bioproducts the black liquor gasification process yields, from a truly renewable resource.

That industry is keenly aware of the evolving demand for green products and green processes that contribute to reduced greenhouse gases is not news. Progressive manufacturers are putting in place green programs and strategic directives to improve their environmental position as evidence continues to mount that going green pays dividends. As noted by authors Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winston in the seminal text on the greening of business, "Green to Gold", "Smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage."

Richard J. LeBlanc is CEO of Chemrec AB. CHEMREC, helps pulp and paper mills become biorefineries via their black liquor gasification technology.

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