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Refining the future

Moving away from oil dependency through biorefinery project

Tairawhiti could be the first region in New Zealand with its own biorefinery, using waste wood and doing away with the need for oil-based products.

The company behind the project, Futurity, was founded by Tairawhiti’s Jacob Kohn, Rupert Paterson of Queenstown and Dr Gaetano Dedual of Taupo.

“Our focus is on creating advanced biomaterial and biochemicals, not biofuels, to move us away from oil dependency,” said Futurity chief executive Mr Kohn.

“Everything we use today is made with or transported by oil and oil derivatives.

“We use proven technologies which take waste wood, remove the bark, break it into a fine chip, digest the fine chip down to its core chemicals and use it to create advanced materials to utilise in everyday products, with real markets, so that oil can stay in the ground,” he said.

Being from different regions across New Zealand, the company founders say their project can create economic resilience and jobs.

“That’s a main motivation for us — to focus our efforts towards regional New Zealand,” Mr Kohn said.

An overarching theme of Futurity is inclusive development, working with all stakeholders, communities and the environment, with a focus on integrated land use, diverse ecosystems and creating a better Tairawhiti together.

“We recognise there is a massive global shift to more sustainable materials, greener supply chains and production of less intense chemicals,” said Dr Dedual, the company’s chief technological officer.

“New Zealand is the largest exporter of softwood logs in the world, meaning there is a large opportunity to add value to this industry.”

Dr Dedual said companies overseas were producing advanced bio-based biochemicals and materials from wood.

“We thought we could do it here in New Zealand.

“There’s no reason why not.”

New Zealand’s “intensive forestry” was underutilised, Mr Kohn said, with a lot of the wood going to China.

“We foresee that a lot of the wood will still go to China but reliance on one export supply chain or market route creates risk and volatility.

“Biorefineries can provide a high-value, reliable value stream to bring job creation and resilience into the regions, reducing risk through diversified markets.”

The parallel benefit was more sustainable practises, with less environmental impact.

“We are already a country which is heavily reliant on biomass and biological industry like horticulture and agriculture.

“The biorefinery is a way to take it to the next level and be a world leader in the bioeconomy and circular economy,” Mr Kohn said.

Many benefits to the environment

Every human activity had an impact on the environment, Dr Dedual said.

“It’s about reducing the impacts and mitigating the negative impact.

“We will use sustainably-managed trees that take carbon dioxide out of the air, keeping fossil fuels in the ground. This is the basis for Futurity.”

The plan is for an anaerobic digestion system to produce biogas to power the whole biorefinery process, meaning self-sufficiency for energy requirements.

“The benefits to the environment are multifaceted,” Dr Dedual said.

They plan on using low-grade pinewood and pine waste wood but in the future will be looking into other plant materials.

They envisage the biorefinery using 160,000 tonnes of wood a year.

Pine stands out as an exotic species managed for harvesting on a sustainable rotation basis.

“What we are trying to achieve with the forestry industry is creating more sustainable forestry factors to improve the image and process,” Mr Dedual said.

“On a technological basis there is no reason why other biomass sources like hemp couldn’t work but we need to understand there needs to be a large supply chain of hemp or other biomass sources for a biorefinery.”

Dr Dedual said having a biorefinery in Tairawhiti could attract interest in the different features of the material it produced.

The three are keen to use the forestry plantations because they are a managed resource.

“There is potential to use waste wood that is currently left on slopes. We are actively working with a number of forestry companies to realise this, investigating logistics and economic feasibility to reduce the environmental impact of forestry activities,” Dr Dedual said.

They decided on Tairawhiti because there’s a lot of wood here.

“We see that as a huge opportunity,” Mr Kohn said.

“The sheer volume of what’s created means there’s a large waste problem. With Futurity creating high value products we can justify paying enough to get the waste off the slopes..

“It will benefit everyone through the supply chain.”

Another benefit was removing the risk of flooding and damage.

“It’s a win-win,” Mr Kohn said.

Earlier this month the three made a presentation at Gisborne District Council’s Sustainable Tairawhiti meeting.

Mr Kohn said the reception from GDC was “great”.

The next step is presenting to the Tairawhiti Economic Action Plan group.

Futurity has also had “positive conversations” with the Government.

“We are looking to work very closely with the Government on multiple

levels to try to achieve this,” Mr Kohn said.

OIL IS NOT THE FUTURE: New bio-venture Futurity is trying to establish the first biorefinery in Gisborne. The company’s founders are (from left)chief technology officer Dr Gaetano Dedual, chairman Rupert Paterson and Gisborne’s Jacob Kohn, chief executive officer. Picture by Ellen Mary Taylor