Lambton College research centre helps build biochemical industry in Ontario

Baoling Chen / Lambton College
January 23, 2019
Written by Baoling Chen / Lambton College
Lambton College established the Centre of Excellence in Energy & Bio-Industrial Technologies in 2015.
Lambton College established the Centre of Excellence in Energy & Bio-Industrial Technologies in 2015. Photo by Ashish Chacko/Lambton College
Jan. 23, 2019 - There are many who believe that biomass is the future of Canada’s chemical industries. Bio-based products are redefining industrial and consumer products by integrating renewable, biological raw materials into a wide range of products including bio-plastics, surfactants, bio-lubricants, cosmetics, enzymes, and pharmaceuticals produced from non-food biomass and crops as well as waste streams.

The Sarnia-Lambton region in Southwestern Ontario has been historically known for their petrochemical and refining plants specializing in petroleum and petrochemical products.

The region established the Sarnia-Lambton Bio-Hybrid and Chemistry Cluster, based on a strong community direction that recognized Sarnia-Lambton’s natural fit for ongoing developments in the fields of industrial biotechnology and bioprocessing. This cluster merges and builds on the strengths of the hydrocarbon-based and bio-based economies as well as agriculture sector in order to diversify the regional economy.

In direct alignment with this regional vision, Lambton College successfully established the Centre of Excellence in Energy & Bio-Industrial Technologies in 2015 with distinctive programs and applied research. In fall 2018, Lambton College completed a $14.2-million, 34,000 square-foot renovation and upgrade of this world-class facility, centralizing academic programming, industry-focused training, and research labs.

It has been identified that one of the major challenges for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within this cluster is limited research and development (R&D) capacity. If situations where an SME does have in-house research capacity, the focus typically remains on technology and they lack multi-faceted support, which is required for successful commercialization and full-scale process development.

The Bio-industrial Process Research Centre (BPRC), housed within Lambton College’s Centre of Excellence, was established in 2015 with input and expertise from an advanced bio-industrial technology research group.

The BPRC has since addressed the R&D need of clients and partners within the Sarnia-Lambton Bio-Hybrid and Chemistry Cluster. So far, more than 100 partners through 110 applied research projects and 150 plus technical services have been supported by the BPRC. These projects have resulted in eight pilot plants, 35 prototypes, 28 developed and 55 improved technologies/processes/products, and supported six patents. Through these projects, over 170 college students, and 40 college faculty and staff researchers were actively involved with bio-industrial and green chemistry projects. The BPRC has over $5 million in infrastructure for the support of its projects including a fermentation lab, a bio analytical laboratory, a material testing lab, a material processing lab, and a pilot testing facility.

BPRC projects focus on bio-products such as furfural, a bio-renewable chemical that has gained widespread attention as a potential chemical for the production of bio-chemicals. Furfural and its derivatives have been extensively used in plastics, pharmaceutical, and agrochemical industries. Global demand the chemical is currently 800,000 ton/year and is expected to grow by 300,000 tons/year due to increased demand for green and bio-based products. By 2020, that demand is expected to skyrocket to one million tons/year. The current global technology for furfural production is limited to a maximum yield of 10 per cent. At present, a company known as DMT Bioproducts is collaborating with the BPRC to optimize their pre-treatment method and process parameters to achieve 95 per cent separation of three key elements from miscanthus (hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin). The result will then allow the use of hemicellulose for the production of furfural to achieve a minimum 20 per cent yield of furfural from dry miscanthus.

Another BPRC partner, Comet Bio, has developed a novel process to convert cellulosic biomass into high quality, cost competitive products. They have developed a dextrose product from corn stover and wheat straw that is collected from local farmers and will support the bio chemical-based industries in Sarnia/Lambton and beyond. Comet Bio is completing design on a 60 million-pound facility in Sarnia that will produce dextrose and co-products at large scale, providing a cellulosic sugar alternative to the sugar market.

Lambton College and Comet Bio are collaborating on a project to optimize the dextrose production process and find economical uses for the co-product hemicellulose and lignin streams.

Lambton College and Comet are collaborating on a project to optimize the dextrose production process and find economical uses for the by-product xylan and lignin streams. As part of the optimization, the research aims to increase sugar yields and develop an enzyme recycle process, significantly reducing process costs. When combined with finding uses for the by-product streams, this will make cellulosic sugar competitive with standard corn-based sugars.

Lambton College will continue to develop new collaborations and research projects, while supporting local initiatives like the Sarnia Lambton Bio-Hybrid and Chemistry Cluster. At the same time, the BPRC will stimulate economic development and help to build a world class bio-industrial sector in Canada.

Baoling Chen, PhD, is a Bio-Industrial Process Research Centre Coordinator, Applied Research & Innovation, at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont. 

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