Full speed ahead
December 5, 2014
By Dr. Donald L. Smith
Owning a home has long been viewed as a rite of passage and a marker of adulthood. If this benchmark is any indication, it looks like the biofuels industry is growing up.
Owning a home has long been viewed as a rite of passage and a marker of adulthood. If this benchmark is any indication, it looks like the biofuels industry is growing up. Years of research and development in the industry are finally paying off, not only in terms of sophisticated technologies for producing biofuels, but the facilities to house these technologies.
In the past year alone, North America has witnessed the successful launch of several advanced biofuels facilities, representing an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. These integrated biorefineries use diverse feedstocks – primarily waste biomass – and a variety of conversion technologies to produce biofuels and a range of other bioproducts such as animal feed, heat and power.
While U.S.-based operations account for most biofuels facilities in North America, Canada is not far behind. As an example, Quebec-based Enerkem inaugurated Canada’s first commercial-scale municipal waste-to-fuel plant in Edmonton this past June. In collaboration with GreenField Ethanol, Enerkem has also begun construction of a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in Varennes, Quebec. In Ontario, meanwhile, the green chemistry company BioAmber is in the midst of building a commercial facility in Sarnia.
South of the border, several commercial-scale biofuels facilities using waste and residues as feedstock have also recently begun operations: INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy kicked off in 2013 in Florida; POET–DSM launched Project Liberty in Iowa in September 2014; and Abengoa opened the Bioenergy Hugoton Cellulosic Ethanol Facility, the largest cellulosic ethanol facility in the world, in Kansas this year. This activity shows no signs of slowing down: Dupont’s commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility is set to open in 2015 in Iowa, and the US Department of Defence has awarded $210 Million to Emerald Biofuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy and Red Rock Bio to build biorefineries that can produce cost-competitive military fuels.
Looking beyond biofuels, interest in valuable bioproducts and bio-based materials has spiked within the cleantech sector and the investment community. In fact, these products often help clinch deals with large multinational companies, thus securing important sources of revenue in addition to those derived from biofuel.
All of which is to say: the market is poised for exponential growth.
This is where BioFuelNet comes in. An advanced research network that brings together academia, industry, investment and government, BFN seeks to harness opportunities in biofuels research and address barriers to sustainable biofuels production.
The idea for the Network took shape several years ago, when a small group of university researchers saw the need to unify the disparate components of the biofuels sector into a network that would help drive development. Intent on avoiding duplication of effort, these thought leaders focused on getting the most out of the existing investments supporting the nascent biofuels industry in Canada. These early efforts culminated in the creation of BioFuelNet Canada (BFN) in 2012. Just two years later, BFN’s network community extends to 142 organizations from both the public and private sectors, including such notable industry partners as Rolls Royce, Ford, Air Canada and FPInnovations.
After a successful first phase of research, BFN is gearing up for a second phase that will target strategic areas such as aviation biofuels and forestry-based biofuels (www.biofuelnet.ca/phase-ii). The Network will also take a hard look at the barriers to advanced biofuels production, such as policy and availability of suitable feedstock. Also on the agenda: optimizing BFN’s research structure and improving interactions with partners.
Canada stands to benefit from this effort on two important fronts: a greener environment and a healthier workforce. Indeed, the cleantech sector already employs over 41,000 Canadians – more than the pharmaceutical industry – and the 10 projects funded in BFN’s second phase of research could add to this figure.
These resources put BioFuelNet in an ideal position to shepherd the biofuels industry into a more mature and productive phase. The ingredients are all there: increasingly cost-effective technology, brand-new facilities, and a groundswell of interest from industry. Stay tuned. •
*The author is grateful for the contributions of Annie Webb, Gabrielle Bauer and Jorin Mamen for the writing of this article.
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