Using trees to replace petroleum-based products has suffered setbacks in Maine, but is being pursued in Europe, with some success.

A notable example is Borregaard in Sarpsborg, Norway, a former pulp and paper mill. It has been transformed into a biorefinery that uses spruce chips to make ethanol from the sugars in wood pulp and produce chemicals from the lignin, an organic substance in plants.

Advanced technologies now are turning cellulose into food products, including a no-calorie thickener for ice cream and hot dogs.

This evolution, however, took many years and tens of millions of dollars from the Norwegian government.

In Maine, the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute won a $6.9 million federal grant in 2006 to work on converting trees into fuel and other products. A $30 million federal energy grant to Red Shield Environmental was secured in 2008 to build a demonstration biorefinery at the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill in Old Town. But the company went out of business.

Last month, federal officials offered a new channel of assistance linked to the findings of an Economic Development Assessment Team, requested by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to help revive the distressed forest-products industry. As part of an agreement, UMaine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory will work together on developing biomaterials from the forest, including composite building materials and fuels.

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