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Product research priorities for eucalyptus

Dean Satchell's blog
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Scion are currently preparing an Diverse Species bid to MB on behalf of the forest industry. This is a partnership between Future Forests Research, University of Canterbury and Scion, and is being funded by growers through our growers commodity levy. Following are my views on the research priorities as I see them:

There appears to be no information available around preservative penetration in PLANTATION E. regnans. I'm referring to ACQ pressure treatment (Copper, but with no chrome ot arsenic) which might make a fine decking product out of regnans. E. regnans is the "best" species for accepting treatment according to the literature I've reviewed and I'd suggest our plantation material is most suitable for available treatment processes, being very different to the native mountain ash in Australia (Plantation regnans has a large earlywood band, is soft and low density).

Obviously acetylation and other modification technologies are well worth pursuing for regnans/nitens/fastigata but ACQ is cheap and readily available technology that could be applied immediately, if penetration were demonstrated to be adequate (i.e. to h3.2). This isn't a big research job. In fact I've got some ACQ treated regnans waiting to be tested under accelerated decay conditions.

I can report that my thermally modified E. regnans deck is very attractive after one year in service. Checking is minimal, which gives it a considerably more attractive appearance to higher density naturally durable eucalyptus in outdoor applications. Generally higher density equates to more surface checking as outdoor decking or cladding. Improving the durability of low-density eucalypts holds much promise for quality products and markets for growers. However, a thermally modified low density eucalypt decking product requires both demonstration of 15 years durability performance and adequate strength through that period. Cladding might only require assessment of durability performance.

An economic assessment is required that provides a thorough analysis of the tradeoff between slower growing durable eucalypts (stringybarks) and faster growing non-durable eucalypts (fastigata, regnans) that will require treatment for outdoor applications or hardening for appearance applications, which each incur additional costs. Growers really do need some basic figures on the consequences of lower wood qualkity that faster growth provides, and how product costs and values should influence planting decisions.

Data is available on average graded sawn timber lengths from unpruned cold-climate eucalypt species. However, costs of finger-jointing (specifically edge jointing) and log to product costs and values of finger-jointed material are required before producers would consider innovative eucalypt cladding and decking products from unpruned trees and headlogs. NZ Sustainable Forest Products have forged the path ahead with their work on edge-jointed red beech cladding and decking products, the rest of the industry needs to take heed. Growers won't plant trees unless they see markets for the timber.

No strength data is available for plantation cold-climate species (E. regnans, E. fastigata, E. nitens) in New Zealand. This precludes their use in structural applications. We all know the stuff is much stronger than radiata, yet there is no market because there is no data. This is key fundamental research to their uptake in New Zealand - Characteristic stresses need to be determined for these eucalypt species. Reference samples need to be tested in accordance with AS/NZS 4063.1:2010. Only once this is done can important structural markets for eucalypt be developed in New Zealand.

Because short-clear lengths are available from the unpruned cold-climate eucalypt resource, structural finger-jointing is necessary to upgrade into value-added structural product. The integrity of structural finger-joints needs to be tested for these species and the economics of producing a structural finger-jointed product needs to be explored to open up markets for high-value appearance structural products such as glulam.

A case needs to be made that untreated E. regnans heartwood meets the durability performance requirements of the building code for internal structural applications. Although H1.2 boron treatment can be used on any species, this is not necessary if heartwood were demonstrated as equivalent durability with Douglas fir heartwood. There are markets for strong untreated framing timber durable enough for applications where there is a risk of moisture penetration and entrapment. Time for some fundamental research.

 Other important potential applications for cold-climate eucalypt species include posts and poles. I'm sure growers would be very happy if they could production thin for posts and poles from age 10. We already know that eucalypt is much stiffer and stronger than radiata pine so the challenge is making it fit for purpose. There are actually two challenges:

  1. durability, and
  2. stresses (splitting).

We know that young fast-grown cold-climate eucalypt contains high levels of growth stress. There is no point in exploring treatment or modification options to increase durability if the posts are going to split themselves apart (as they do). What we didn't know previously is that stresses can be easily relieved by boring the core out. This new technology is currently being applied in New Zealand for radiata pine poles and piles and could likely be adapted for processing eucalypt thinnings to both relieve stresses and also improve treatment uptake. All that without compromising the strength of the post/pole product! Maybe I'm dreaming, but until the fundamental research is undertaken, we won't know. The costs need to be weighed against the product value in an economic analysis - we are at a crossroads where growers need to know whether cold-climate non-durable eucalypts hold promise for applications such as posts and poles. If not then growers could focus on durable heart eucalypt.

I hope the forest growers levy funded research programme considers these issues, because if we are to create a solid plantation forest industry we need to start thinking about diverse products and begin creating markets for these.

Gobal emissions and biofuels

Dean Satchell's blog
Thursday, October 09, 2014

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and cement production grew 2.3 percent to a record high of 36 billion tonnes CO2 in 2013. CSIRO's Dr Pep Canadell, Executive-Director of the Global Carbon Project (GCP) and co-author of a 2014 report said the carbon dioxide level was "unprecedented in human history". Even more concerning, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase a further 2.5 per cent this year. Just to put this in context, it was agreed 25 years ago at the first Earth Summit at Rio, Brazil, that a global effort was required to control our carbon emissions.

Meanwhile Indonesia’s deforestation rate has become the world’s highest. The Nature Climate Change journal reported that Indonesia lost 840,000 hectares of natural forest in 2012, compared with 460,000 hectares in Brazil, even though Indonesia’s forest is a quarter of the size of the Amazon rainforest.

Potentially making matters worse, the rate of forest loss in Indonesia is twice the rate reported by the Indonesian government. According to Greenpeace, the destruction of forests is being driven by the unrestrained expansion of the palm oil and pulp and paper industries. The study warned that developers are increasingly turning to Indonesia’s carbon-rich wetlands. “Tropical rainforests are one of the world’s richest carbon sinks, and peatlands are many times more powerful carbon sinks,” Tropical forest advocate Glenn Hurowitz told Scientific American. “It’s the height of insanity, desperation or greed to destroy a peatland rainforest.”

And then I read that Russia is running out of forest because nobody wants to invest in the future of the resource - it's effectively being mined.

No doubt in my mind that it's all about greed. However, it's also about consumption, and demand. As our population incessantly grows, the productive land surface available per human declines. We need energy, and we need raw materials and we need food. Rainforest simply isn't as productive as palm oil or pulpwood plantations. The real "cost" of our fossil energy doesn't come into the equation.

So how does deforestation relate with fossil fuel consumption and how does this all fit in with growing trees? Deforestation implies wastage of the biomass byproduct from forests. Slash and burn - take the cream off the top, burn the rest and then change land use, just like what we did here in New Zealand 100 years ago. For me the relationship is simple, as is the solution. I'll give you a hint. The key question to ask is "When we can expect biofuels to become competitive with fossil fuels?"

Sandra Velarde, an economist at Scion, is studying growing trees for bioenergy. Her studies show that at present this doesn't make economic sense. However, under scenarios that increase the price of oil by more than 20%, bioenergy may be economically viable. I viewed a presentation she held recently where she was saying that we need to plan for it because although bioenergy will become competitive, the opportunity will be mostly lost if we just wait for something to happen. However, I'd suggest that planning for such a plantation resource and industry is far more dependent on policies than market forces. Having sound government policies in place is what is required to give the right market signals that would drive planning a resource with an industry behind it.

Bioenergy has much to offer the world. CSIRO research describes bioenergy as potentially contributing 20% of Australia's electricity generation and 30-40% of its liquid fuel needs by 2020. The MPI funded Stump to Pump programme here in New Zealand has just released its report which has vastly improved our technical understanding around producing biofuels from forestry waste. However, applying these findings requires stronger market signals than provided in the current "do nothing and leave it to the market" scenario offered by our National government.

Seems to me that with so much at stake it really shouldn't be political suicide to take on the required transformation of NZ to a biological economy where forestry biomass is competitive with oil, coal and gas. All that is required is lumping a 20% tax on fossil fuels. Such a simple measure, yet this would transform the forest industry without any of the complications and inefficiencies of our emissions trading scheme, which accounts for all sources and sinks, biological and fossil together. The impact on our economy would be negligible and most likely positive because we wouldn't be importing as much of the black stuff. And everybody would understand it.

Globally this simple measure would go a long way towards dealing with deforestation by creating sufficient value out of forests to incentivise sustainable management . It would also transform the renewable energy industry, which could then stake its claim for a real market share of the energy industry, directly reducing fossil emissions - the ones that really count. Unfortunatly the renewable energy solution to fossil emissions is lost in "measures" that mix fossil emissions up with deforestation and belching cows, creating a confusing and complicated nightmare that nobody wants to buy into.

Back to deforestation. Its obvious to me that land-use intensification, deforestation, land use change, resource depletion and all the problems associated with these are actually population issues and need to be dealt on that basis, not lumped together with energy and fossil carbon emissions. So why is it not obvious to the policy makers that it's actually population control that is the most important issue facing mankind?

My last question is political. Would you support an increase in fossil fuel prices to the level required for renewable energy (such as bioenergy from wood) to be competitive with fossil fuels? I ask you, would the pain really be too much to bear?

Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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