The Government of Alberta continues to invest in the future of the province’s bioeconomy thanks to the ongoing success of the Biorefining Conversions Network.
By Andrew Macklin
The Government of Alberta continues to invest in the future of the province’s bioeconomy thanks to the ongoing success of the Biorefining Conversions Network. Based out of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the BCN is pairing academic researchers with corporate partners to create new bioproducts from waste materials created through industrial processes.
|One area of research at the Biorefining Conversions Network involves the study of the conversion of specified risk materials (SRM) into value-added protein-based bioproducts such as plastic.
Earlier in the last decade, the province of Alberta made a commitment to increase its investment in research and development of the province’s bioeconomy. Over that time, the various funding agencies put out several related RFPs for new ideas for research and development in the bioeconomy that would produce tangible results. But the processes never returned optimized results as often proposals submitted were redundant or did not maximize collaborative efficiencies. The flood of academics seeking corporate matching financing requests also tended to strain the relationships with a business sector that was looking for bio-based solutions, and also pitted academic colleagues against one another in the fight to secure the funding.
It was around that same time that David Bressler was approached to be involved with the initiative. Bressler, who was working as an Associate Professor in an agriculture/forestry faculty with a cross appointment to Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, was asked to put together a strategic approach to coordinating biomass conversion opportunities for the University of Alberta.
“They wanted me to focus on working with industry, companies like Genencor and Novozymes,” says Bressler, the executive director for the Biorefining Conversions Network. “They wanted me to find ways of engaging the research capacity and training capabilities of the university system to develop economically sustainable products and technologies for industry.”
In 2007, Bressler sat down with funding partners from across Alberta to discuss best practices for getting industry and academia to work together. The meetings held with the corporate partners were the first steps towards the creation of the Biorefining Conversions Network. By 2009, the Biorefining Conversions Network 1.0 was operational, with $3 million in initial funding provided by Alberta Innovates Biosolutions.
The formation of the Biorefining Conversions Network created academic partnerships with industry. An industrial partner presents a need, a research and development team is formed, and work is begun to tackle the issues and put together resources. The only hitch was that funding had to be fully committed across the three-year mandate at launch in order to qualify, which was a stipulation resulting from the Alberta grant system. The $3 million in BCN funding actually leveraged $7.5 million, with 14 projects funded directly, and an additional seven from the non-core finances.
The focus of the BCN projects fall under four classifications:
- Biomass Pre-processing
- Biological Conversions
- Chemical Conversions
- Thermal Conversions
The 17 projects launched through the BCN all focused on the production of commercially viable technologies. The expected end result is products and technologies, developed in the BCN framework, which can then be patented and moved towards commercial use.
The goals of the Biorefining Conversions Network were established not just to create applicable technologies based on the needs of its corporate partners. The network is also looking outside of its own borders, assessing new technologies in other provinces and countries, as well as linking with other research and development centres across Canada. It has involved multinational corporate partners on several research and development projects, including Sanimax Inc., Weyerhaeuser, The Woodbridge Group and Syngenta Crop Protection Canada Inc.
The establishment of a board of directors has also helped to create a closer link to the industries that the BCN is working for. There are representatives on the board from the carbon-capture, forestry and oilsands industries, all of which are involved with BCN’s research and development.
The development of the board helped to create a new mandate during the transition from BCN 1.0 to BCN 2.0. The transition, which occurred in March of 2012, came as a result of the expiration of the initial program investment. For BCN 2.0, the financial commitment to the BCN was increased from $3 million to $4 million, with money now available annually. That change will help programs progress annually, with no need to commit all of the money for the project up front. That, in turn, has provided better stabilization in the funding model for the research itself.
The new mandate has also included the creation of program clusters. These clusters involve links to global organizations, as well as the creation of an industry-focused applied business network. The purpose of each network is to interpret needs and assessment between business and academia, to introduce new relationships between business and academics, and to provide clearer lines of communication between the partners in order to protect the confidentiality of each ongoing project.
“The creation of these clusters is allowing industry to get in on the ground level of the research that is being done,” says Bressler. “For example, in the forestry cluster, industry representatives are being consulted for the creation real byproducts from the raw waste materials being produced. Forestry companies have asked for commercially viable solutions for these products, rather than be expected to provide reduced price feedstock for a third party to use to make money from.”
Because of the way the cluster has been created, there is an opportunity for open dialogue between the industry and the academics working on research and development. Those partnerships allow for a symbiotic relationship, one where both parties receive financial gain from the creation of bioproducts.
The creation of commercially viable bioproducts has already begun to come to fruition thanks to the work of the BCN. Because of research done by BCN a lipid pyrolysis company, producing hydrocarbon without the use of hydrogen and/or a catalyst, is currently in the works. The company has been made possible by the teams currently working on thermal conversion projects. In addition to the work involving lipid materials, Bressler says, 20L/hour pilot plant for the production of high-value fuels is also under construction.
As research and development continues, new partnerships are being formed that could lead to new bioproducts for industries in Canada.
Corporate partners continue to consult with the BCN for the development for new bioproducts that have immediate use within their sector, not just products that can be sold on the market.