CanBio biofuels conference shows new approach

May 05, 2013
May 6, 2013, Sarnia, ON - The Canadian Bioenergy Association (CanBio) chose the right location to announce both its new leadership and its expanded mandate.


Sarnia is a border town in the midst of re-inventing itself, moving from its historical roots as Canada's petrochemical capital to a diversified economy that includes an emerging industrial biotechnology cluster.

CanBio's Biofuels and Biochemicals Conference held May 1-2 was its first under the completely new leadership team, which includes Dr. Fernando Preto as brand new executive director and Ken Shields, appointed chair late in 2012. Preto comes to CanBio as a biomass combustion expert from CanmetENERGY, while Shields is CEO of Conifex Timber, a forest products and emerging bioenergy company based in BC. 

The duo, along with CanBio Ontario vice-chair Chris Rees, wasted little time unveiling the association's broader, more inclusive mandate. The message? CanBio is about more than forest bioenergy.

"As you can tell from the agenda today, CanBio has a broader perspective," Preto said in response to audience questions about the association's new direction. "We had tended to focus on forestry, and on the heat and power markets. We will still address those opportunities, but starting with this meeting we're a lot more inclusive, both in the sectors we're dealing with and the partnerships we'll establish. We have key representatives from agricultural biomass and the biofuel sector here today, and the focus is on liquid biofuels and industrial biotechnology, not just combustion."


Sarnia biotech ready
And indeed it was. Much of the talk focused about tying in with traditional infrastructure to make emerging industrial biotech technology easier to commercialize. For instance, George Mallay, general manager of the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership, outlined how the area was aggressively merging its traditional agriculture and oil industries to create a new biohybrid chemistry cluster.

"Aside from a critical mass of skilled people, research and suppliers, and a strategic location in the heart of a massive potential market right on the Great Lakes, we have available petro-chemical sites with infrastructure, that are port and rail ready. Basically these are ready for bio-based facilities to set up shop with Cap-Ex savings of 25 per cent."

The opportunity to plug-and-play was also picked up by Scott Thurlow, executive director of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA). Thurlow acknowledged that his members are very much in the ethanol and biodiesel business, but added that the uncertain nature of future biofuels mandates and renewable politics has many looking at diversifying their product streams.

"We are in the biofuels industry today, but make no mistake - The bioeconomy is where we are heading. Our member plants are bio-refineries, so if there are ways to diversify those product streams and add value to the business model, whether on our own or with partners, that only makes sense."

Gord Surgeoner of Agri-Food Technologies agreed, noting that in the agri-biomass sector, having biofuel plants as anchor tenants in a biotech cluster makes sense. With the infrastructure and logistics established to run the large plant, smaller specialty biochemical producers can tap into that to establish their own process streams, at times even using the larger plants' waste streams as inputs.

 
Drop-in success
In addition to the benefits of creating biotech clusters, such as those forming in Sarnia and Drayton Valley, AB, both speakers and participants spoke to the benefits of targeting "drop-in" products that can replace petrochemicals or fossil fuels with little or no investment in new infrastructure.

One such player in Sarnia is French chemical supplier BioAmber, who is creating a bio-succinic acid plant in Sarnia's biotech park. The plant will produce 30,000 tonnes/yr to feed into an existing market for petroleum-based succinic acids used for food additives. BioAmber's Anne Waddell says they will also target intermediate markets worth $10 billion where their product would be a drop-in replacement for petrochemicals that are becoming increasingly expensive.

"In some cases, the shortages or escalating prices are already happening, for example with some C5 and C6 type chemicals. There are markets where succinic acids derived from petroleum are just too expensive, but a cheaper bio-based product will open up totally new markets." 

It is that economic imperative that biochemical or biofuel producers must pay heed to, noted Don Roberts, a managing director with CIBC World Markets in the end-of-day panel session. If projects hope to secure mainstream financing, they must prove they have a firm grip on their biomass supply, both in terms of price and long-term availability. It also helps if they will be making a product that can act as a drop-in replacement for an existing product without the need to invest in new infrastructure or create new markets.

In wrapping up the day, Shields reiterated that the broad range of players attending and presenting in Sarnia reflects the new face of CanBio. He added that a key mandate of the re-invigorated association will be to work closely with as many related associations and organizations as possible to make sure the biomass industry has a clear, unified voice in addressing the core issues.

"What we've heard before, and what we're hearing loud and clear today, is the need for the industry to sing from the same songbook. Organizations like FPAC have brought significant gains to their membership in the past by targeting two or three key issues, and making sure their message is clear and consistent. That's what we have to do. This meeting and the bringing together of various players is just the appetizer in that sense. Our annual meeting in Gatineau in October will be the main course."

CanBio's annual meeting will be held in Gatineau, QC on October 8-10. Visit www.canbio.ca for more information. 

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