First published as part of the clean technology transformation special feature in the November 22, 2023 Globe and Mail, produced by Randall Anthony Communication.


A partnership between Arbios Biotech, LTN Contracting and the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation earned funding support from the B.C. Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy for efforts to turn slash into sustainable aviation fuel. SUPPLIED

At first glance, Chuntoh Ghuna seems a curious name for a wood-residue-based facility. But on closer examination, the relevance of the Lheidli T’enneh name – which means “the forest lives” – soon becomes obvious.

“The naming of the facility was led by our community and our elders,” says Glen Bjorklund, general manager at LTN Contracting, a forestry company wholly owned by the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, of which Mr. Bjorklund is a member – and on whose unceded territory the facility is located. “What we’re doing in this project, with our partners, is to explore a sustainable solution for reducing greenhouse gases and decreasing the risk of forest fires by removing forest residues and turning them into biofuel.”

Escalating wildfire threats across B.C. as well as globally have spurred increased attention on forest residues, and experts believe removing excess fuel from ecosystems can help decrease the risk. For Mr. Bjorklund, this confirms that Prince George, “the forestry capital of British Columbia,” is a fitting location for the endeavour.

“We really are at the centre of this opportunity,” he says. “It brings together high-level players, including Arbios Biotech and the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, which holds the largest First Nations Woodland Licence in northern B.C.”

The power of partnerships

It’s no coincidence that the term “partnership” crops up repeatedly in connection with Chuntoh Ghuna, says Stefan Muller, COO of Arbios Biotech. “Arbios is essentially a joint venture between two companies: Licella, the cleantech inventor, and Canfor, a global leader in forest products manufacturing. From there, we’re partnering with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and the B.C. Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy [CICE].”

The technology draws on a process called hydrothermal liquefaction, “using water at high pressures and temperatures to do in minutes what nature normally does in millions of years: to convert biomass into a liquid,” explains Mr. Muller. Arbios’s catalytic hydrothermal reactors enable the production of low-carbon biocrude, a renewable and sustainable bio oil, which can then be turned into transportation fuels and other chemicals.

While the technology has mainly been tested on wood fibre byproducts from sawmills, Arbios has attracted support from CICE for efforts to expand the range of source materials to “slash and thinnings, residue that is collected in the forest,” says Mr. Muller. “The CICE funding gives us the opportunity to test forest residues in our facility as a means to reduce the carbon intensity of the entire value chain.”

Supporting cleantech from idea to impact

In a recent call for proposals, CICE invited B.C.-based companies to propose solutions and commercial pathways to strengthen the forest residue management value chain, diversify wood waste utilization opportunities, and reduce carbon emissions, says Todd Sayers, the organization’s COO. “This is part of our efforts to support the innovations – both in technologies and business models – that can help Canada and the world reach their net-zero goals.”

Taking cleantech from idea to impact can be a decades-long process, where innovators are known to face “valleys of death” due to inadequate funding or other support, says Mr. Sayers. “CICE is a unique industry and government partnership for investing and supporting the commercial scaling of cleantech, especially early-stage startups that may not have the traditional revenue metrics available to attract venture funds or other financing partners.”

CICE’s approach, he explains, is designed to be “non-dilutive, so that innovators can really focus on advancing their idea without having to worry about losing part of their company or getting distracted by other pressures or expectations.”

Funding support is awarded based on “an intelligent risk-based framework” that considers both market needs and market gaps, and is informed by experts in academia, industry, community and government, says Mr. Sayers. “The area of forest residues, for example, was a legacy challenge where we knew we needed to channel some momentum.”

Due to a strong focus on building resilience, the team prioritized projects with a community engagement lens, notes Ashley Callister, low carbon fuels lead at CICE. “We were very intentional about supporting regional solutions – and looking for more of a bottom-up approach, which we believe leads to better outcomes.”

What made this project stand out, in addition to the proposition of converting what currently amounts to a waste product into renewable fuel, are “strong community relationships,” says Mr. Sayers. “When you bring in a diversity of perspectives, you decrease the risks on the path from development to commercialization.”

A win-win all around

Mr. Muller agrees that community engagement can be a powerful catalyst for cleantech solutions. As “the world’s largest woody biomass hydrothermal liquefaction facility,” he envisions Chuntoh Ghuna enhancing community well-being by creating high-value jobs while, at the same time, advancing a climate solution.

“We’re having very interesting conversations with Lheidli T’enneh councillors about how improving the health of the forest can impact the entire ecosystem – and the lives of animals and people not only locally but around the world,” he says. “We’re very excited to help decarbonize the world, especially since we’re focusing on areas like aviation, marine and other transportation fuels, which have traditionally been hard to abate.”

In the forestry industry, cleantech solutions can be “part of the puzzle for strengthening the sector,” says Mr. Bjorklund, who has been involved in LTN Contracting for 23 years and especially welcomes the increased interest in “working with Indigenous communities, both in Canada and worldwide.

“This provides us with opportunities to bring our values to bear on projects,” he says. “That’s important because we’re interested in sustainable forest management but also in being a sustainable forestry company. When we find an efficient way to use forest residue like slash to make sustainable aviation fuel or other high-value products, that’s a win-win for everyone.”

For Mr. Sayers, the project represents a prime example of what CICE is hoping to achieve. “We’re trying to deploy our capital for real need – and for solutions that have a real impact,” he says. “For Canada and the world’s path to net zero and beyond, we need all the solutions we can get – and we need to do our best to unlock bright ideas, entrepreneurial energy and community engagement – and scale high-impact companies as fast as we can.”

With all these elements in place, Chuntoh Ghuna is well positioned to deliver on its promise to contribute to a future where “the forest lives.”

Lheidli T’enneh Slash to SAF Project


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