Patiently, assuredly, one cluster at a time, Canada has amassed a potent armory of renewable fuel and biobased technologies, people and clusters of activity.
Where’s it going? The Digest looks at a whole slew of workshops north of the border and south of the North Pole.
In Vancouver last week, it fell to established industry sage Murray McLaughlin to sum up the appeal of Canada in the renewable movement: “Biomass is the key ingredient, and Canada has large amounts.”
But the long-time director of what is now known as BioIndustrial Innovation Canada coupled that with a cautionary note. “We need bold approaches, Just improving old technologies will not be enough. And he approvingly quoted long-time Shell guru and business theorist Arie de Geus, who once wrote that “The ability to learn faster tha the competition is often the only sustainable competitive edge a company can have.”
In some ways, it is that resilience and adaptation to change that puts a spring into Canadian steps these days. In fast-changing times, they rely on the fact that Canadian forestry and farm business have a history of resilience, and have built prosperity throughout the commodity cycle — or, as McLaughlin termed it, “the peiods of cycles of plenty and the periods of adversity.”
#1. Clusters and co-operatives.
In so many ways, the focal point for survival has been co-operation, the spreading of risk, and the concentration of resources — one of the reasons why McLaughlin and so many Canadians emphasize the importance of R&D clusters, which bring together multiple technologies and across a broad spectrum. McLaughlin was as responsible as any for the development of the Sarnia cluster in Southern Ontario— which has attracted among its participants the likes of BioAmber, Cargill, Enbridge, Greenfield Energy, Methes, KmX, Solutions4CO2, Suncor Ethanol, Woodland Biofuels and Greencore Technologies.
But there are multiple clusters across Canada — it seems to be as common a sight as a Tim Horton’s. In addition to Sarnia/Lambton, there are clusters in Winnipeg (Manitoba), Saskatoon (Saskatchewan), Drayton Valley (Alberta), and Victoriaville (Quebec). In the case of Sarnia, the location is no accident. More than 80% of Ontario soybeans are within 200km of Sarnia.
What makes a cluster a cluster, besides the presence of a number of companies and available biomass? In the case of Sarnia/Lambton, there’s infrastructure — in this case, two industrial parks and an accelerator (which is home to KmX, Green Core and Woodland Biofuels). There are relationships established with other R&D centers. Specifically in this case, BioBased Delta (EU), CLIB (EU), Malaysian Biotech Corp (Malaysia), Life Sciences Queensland (Australia), eGoliBio Lifesciences Incubator (South Africa), Foro Argentimo biotecnologia (Argentina) and the Michicagn Biotechnology Institute in the US.
Also, there’s some vision.
Take for example a plan to build a cellulosic sugars refinery, plainly attractive to any company looking for fermentable sugars or to use sugars as a platform for green chemistry.
To that end, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada has completed phase 1 of a project to assess the economic viability of the agricultural biomass to cellulosic sugar (C5s and C6s) value chain in Canada.
It’s called the Cellulosic Sugar Production Project — and it’s designed to evaluate, develop and physically validate agricultural biomass to sugars and co-products conversion technologies for commercial scale-up application. Currently in Phase 2, the remaining technology providers (representing unique technologies) will produce sugar and co-products from local agricultural biomass.
The ultimate objective is to establish an economically viable, full-scale, commercial cellulosic sugar plant (~125,000 dry tonnes/year cellulosic mixed sugars) in Southern Ontario by 2018. This is expected to require a biomass conversion facility handling up to 250,000 dry tonnes/year of biomass.