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CanBio biofuels conference shows new approach

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


May 5, 2013
By Scott Jamieson


Topics

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."

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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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