Canadian Biomass Magazine

Clustered together for mutual success

June 3, 2014
By Christopher Rees

Recent bio-related events in Europe have focused on bioproduct clusters and distributed biorefineries.

Recent bio-related events in Europe have focused on bioproduct clusters and distributed biorefineries.  The goal of clusters is to develop the highest degree of value-added bioproducts in geographic areas outside of the largest urban centres and close to domestic sources of biomass. Undoubtedly, the ports will be the likely setting for the largest biorefineries involved in significant international trade flows – much like the oil refineries model.  But Europe envisages a host of smaller biorefineries, capable of primary biomass refining and conversion up to intermediate products, along the full-value chain of materials, chemicals and energy. Such integrated biorefineries may have a biofuel platform or go directly from biomass to chemicals and act as suppliers to the larger biorefineries.

Europe has already laid the groundwork for this approach by fostering regional “clusters,” several of which are focussed on bioproducts and related clean-tech. Two prominent examples include the Saxony region in Germany and the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. The cluster concept and distributed biorefineries go hand-in-hand, with the cluster providing the overall supportive hard and soft infrastructure from which biorefineries can emerge.

Tomorrow’s biorefineries in Europe
This concept was outlined and discussed at the Tomorrow’s Biorefineries in Europe conference, held in Brussels in February. It was noted that the fledgling biorefinery industry in Europe relies primarily on starch and sugar-based feedstocks but that the future lies in alternative non-food feedstocks (cellulosic). This was the thinking that led the European Commission to begin three major biorefinery research projects in 2010 whose results were reported in Brussels. The three projects, Eurobioref, Biocore and Suprabio, mobilized over $100 million in funding and included over 70 partners from academia, research and industry, spread over 15 countries. The funding platform which led to these projects has now been followed by the Horizons 2020 program representing a funding commitment of $118 billion. More detailed work on moving towards the commercialization of the technologies, processes and models developed under the three research projects will continue.

Canadian applications
The application of distributed biorefineries to the Canadian context was discussed by a CanBio Western Members Roundtable held in Vancouver in March. Participants were optimistic about the potential for such biorefineries in both B.C. and Alberta over the next 10 years. Feedback from CanBio representatives attending the World Biofuels conference held in Amsterdam in early March and the IEA Task 32 Torrefaction Workshop in Austria in January provided complementary information for further Canadian cluster development.


CanBio and Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), which now seek to expand the Sarnia model to other areas of Canada, are on the same wavelength in supporting bioproduct cluster development from which distributed biorefineries can emerge.

Bioproduct clusters and distributed biorefineries will be one of the central topics at the CanBio Annual Conference to be held in Thunder Bay during “Bioeconomy Week” from September 8 to 12. In fact, Thunder Bay provides a great example of the potential for a cluster and distributed biorefinery. The OPG power generation plant has excess heat and space for co-location of new bio-industry ventures. While Thunder Bay does not have the chemical-industry base of Sarnia, it does have a wealth of biomass resources and advanced forest product companies. In addition, it has growing bioeconomy research and development expertise at Lakehead University and Confederation College, as well as at CRIBE.  Attendees at the CanBio Conference will have a chance to see the facilities and explore the prospects first-hand. This is an opportunity not to be missed. Registration for the event is now open (see ).

Christopher Rees  

Christopher Rees is the Advisor to the Chair at CanBio and a Managing Partner at Suthey Holler Associates.

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