In Gabon, wood waste could be used to reduce the use of fossil fuels, as suggested by several Hong Kong specialists, who have conducted research on the subject.
Hong Kong produces 120 tons of lignin a day from discarded wood — and the chemicals derived from that waste — can reduce fossil fuel use.
As any geologist can tell you, fossil fuels are the remains of long-extinct plants and animals, many of which predate the Jurassic period. This raises an obvious question: since we are now throwing away huge amounts of plant and animal waste, couldn't we use these materials to replace fossil fuels as energy sources as well as products such as plastics and flavorings?
Dr Jason Lam, assistant professor at the School of Energy and Environment of the City University of Hong Kong, has conducted research in this direction, focusing on the application of electrocatalysis to transform renewable raw materials, such as biomass, chemicals and fuels.
Biomass upgrading, also known as biorefining, reduces greenhouse gas emissions of fossil origin and avoids landfill. Organic waste from landfills produces gas, which is used in Hong Kong, but wood is very difficult to degrade in a landfill due to its lignin content. Lignin is very resistant to biodegradation.
In addition to some ongoing funding opportunities, such as the Environment and Conservation Fund and the Innovation and Technology Fund, Hong Kong recently established the Green Tech Fund, which specializes in supporting the commercialization of research technologies. Mainland China is also very supportive of the development of green technologies, with greater emphasis on renewable energy and waste treatment.
The manna of wood waste
Typhoons are a frequent and unavoidable hazard in Hong Kong and sometimes create large and literal timber falls in the form of downed trees.
Many industrially successful waste wood processing technologies are very mature and scalable. Also, unlike food waste, which needs to be dealt with immediately, wood or garden waste can be stored for a period of time to deal with any sudden increases.
Hong Kong generates around 120 tonnes of lignin per day, which is enough to power a processing plant.
Finding Flavor in Luxury
There is an emerging interest in high-end products. For example, vanillin—the naturally occurring chemical compound recognized as the primary aroma and taste of vanilla—has been generally considered the most favorable (or tastiest) wood-based product. Only one company in Norway has successfully produced vanillin from wood. Producing vanillin from wood waste would be extremely attractive to the local wood waste processing community. At present, vanillin is synthesized from petroleum raw materials.
Wood-derived vanillin will be identical to conventional vanillin, but its “bio-based birth certificate” will be much more appealing to fulfill our sustainable mission and mitigate fossil resources.
Bio-based vanillin is very valuable in today's flavor industry. Aromatics are essential for the production of pharmaceuticals, materials and biofuels. Based on these experiences, Gabon could also transform wood waste or garden waste into certain ready-to-use chemicals — that is, chemical substitutes — in the most more economically viable and more environmentally friendly.