Balance BioGas introducing small-scale digestors to grow Northern market
Student working with Balance BioGas to develop a dashboard tool for calculating each project's methane potential and carbon reduction.
March 2, 2023 By Mitacs
An up-and-coming entrepreneur born and raised in Yukon is about to change the way families, small communities and mining camps in northern Canada get rid of their waste.
Jonathan Osborne, CEO of Balance BioGas (BBG) who grew up in a remote community near the Champagne/Aishihik First Nation, has developed a first-of-its-kind desktop bio-digester, a 227-litre unit designed to convert household organic waste into usable gas, as well as several other small-scale digester concepts aimed at managing landfill and mining camp waste.
His technology is based on anaerobic digestion, a renewable energy process that uses microorganisms naturally found in cow manure to break down organic waste and convert it to usable methane gas in an air-free environment.
“The real value of our approach is that we’re offering true energy security,” Osborne said. “With our desktop digester, for example, we’re allowing people to take food scraps from their home, put them into a digester and then collect methane gas in a very safe manner at the backend – with food scraps from a family of five translating into cooking gas for a family of five.”
Following studies and a pilot project, Osborne is now on a mission to commercialize his company’s innovation – and he’s tapping into the expertise of a local university student and other partners to do it.
“The more we researched, the more we realized this is a huge field of opportunity for Canada, but the main barrier to implementation up until now has been an economical one,” said Osborne, noting that anaerobic digestion is already widely used as a relatively simple renewable energy solution in other parts of the world, such as Asia, India, Africa and South America, but has yet to take hold in the rest of the world.
“Staying true to our roots, and recognizing the vast need for renewable energy in northern remote areas, we decided to focus our efforts on being first to design a system that’s feasible to be deployed in communities of 600 to 800 people or less,” explained Osborne.”
Local student helps to build business case
To bring his company’s technology to market, Osborne is relying on the support of partners such as Mitacs, a national innovation organization that helps solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions, and CMC Microsystems, a not-for-profit organization accelerating research and innovation in advanced technologies.
He’s also working with businesses such as Ausenco, Casino Mining, Azura Associates and Selkirk Development Corporation to manage waste and reduce the carbon footprint of temporary, remote mining camps that house workers.
At the same time, Osborne is making a strong business case for small-scale digesters in remote northern communities where waste and recycling is typically collected and diverted to other territory locations or provinces for processing — a solution that comes with a high carbon footprint.
To this end, Mitacs intern Kaitlin Halickman, a part-time student in the Bachelor of Business Administration program at Yukon University, is helping to progress BBG’s business and marketing strategy, and build a strong business case for small-scale digesters. As part of her work, she is developing a breakthrough dashboard tool that immediately assesses a community’s waste needs and shows the size and cost of the digester required, as well as the projected carbon reduction and savings possible through carbon incentives.
“This tool will be a key selling feature for us and the first thing potential clients see when we meet with them,” said Osborne, explaining that the process is as simple as inputting the number of people living in a household, mining camp or community and the tool does the calculation automatically.
“There isn’t a single tool like this out there today — that marries methane potential and carbon accounting together — and we wouldn’t have been able to develop it without Mitacs’ support,” he explained.
For Halickman, a busy stay-at-home mom of two, the internship is a valuable opportunity to put her classroom learning to work in a real-life setting. “This project has definitely been a game-changer in terms of the quality of education I’m getting,” she said. “It has opened so many doors and taught me so much.”
Internet-based remote monitoring will be key
Osborne is quick to point out that he hasn’t developed the anaerobic digestion process itself. Rather, anaerobic digestion occurs naturally and the real workhorse is the bacteria. Digesters work like simulated stomachs, requiring the right ratio of water, manure (bacteria) and organic waste at the right temperature — body temperature or 37 degrees Celsius — to work optimally and produce the most methane. The methane is safely captured and put to work to “heat things, burn things or produce electricity,” he explained, and the nutrient-rich sludge left behind can be re-used as rich compost material.
What differentiates BBG from others in the growing field is its focus on small-scale applications, including full system monitoring that will enable the digesters to operate effectively in remote locations. That’s where CMC expects to lend its expertise.
“Our experience tells us that the processes being developed by Balance BioGas will require automation and monitoring, and as experts in Internet of Things (IoT) technology, we understand the value of getting in early on a project so that principal investigators can fully understand the options available,” said Gordon Harling, president and CEO of CMC Microsystems. “We’re delighted to be working with an up-and-coming technology leader in the Yukon, and to expand our project portfolio in northern Canada,” he added.
As Osborne prepares to ramp up his business this year, he’s confident his message about anaerobic digesters as a solution for sustainable, affordable, renewable energy will hit the mark in Yukon and beyond.
“If we can figure out how to do this in the north, with the severe cold and challenges that come with remote areas, we can do it anywhere,” he said. “These microorganisms are earth’s original waste processors and it’s time to unleash their full potential.”
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