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Sarnia’s Bio-hybrid Future

Sarnia has been recognized as the first home of petroleum processing in North America with the discovery of oil in 1850.


June 5, 2013
By Murray McLaughlin

Sarnia has been recognized as the first home of petroleum processing in North America with the discovery of oil in 1850. Here we are 60 years later and it is now the first bio-hybrid cluster.

Biomass is the real start of the future chemical industry and a Canadian opportunity. Bio-based products are defined as industrial and consumer products based on renewable, biological raw materials such as agricultural crops and forest materials. Also included in this definition are new materials such as bio-plastics, surfactants, bio-lubricants, cosmetics, enzymes and pharmaceuticals produced from non-food biomass and crops as well as waste streams.

Bio-based chemicals are a key part of this new sector of the chemical industry, as they represent the development of the chemical building blocks needed for future bio-based products. In reality it is “biomass to sugars”and “sugars to chemicals.” To move away from using food and feed products, there is now a major effort on second-generation feedstocks (non-food biomass) to be converted to low-cost, quality sugars. The Canadian opportunity is the abundance of biomass available and the conversion of that biomass to sugars (C5 and C6), which then will be converted to bio-based chemicals.

Canada has large agricultural areas that produce an overabundance of straw and corn stover. These can be converted, as can straw from wheat, barley or triticale.

There is also the possibility of using purpose-grown crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus and poplar. For specialty oils we have oilseeds such as canola and soybeans for traditional uses such as cosmetics, and camelina and carinata for the new industrial areas such as jet fuel, greases and biolubricants. Finally we have the area of forestry biomass, with access to forestry residuals and byproducts right across the country.

Existing infrastructure
In Sarnia, where the first hybrid chemistry cluster in North America has been established, we see the opportunity to create synergies between the traditional petrochemical industry and the bio-based chemical and biofuels industries. They both bring benefits to the table. The new bio-based startups have a strong entrepreneurial skill set that gets things done – the development aspects of a technology. The traditional industry can provide global marketing and distribution of the bio-based chemical as well as use it in their own businesses. They can also provide funding to the startups. The partnership between the two sectors will create a better market entry and will help build the bio-based industry as the Hybrid Chemistry Sector.

Last year I did a review for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) on the benefits of the bioproducts industry in Canada, and the results were interesting. Why should a bio-based company have an interest in choosing Canada as its North American base if it has a need for feedstock to produce its bio-based products or gain access to sugars from biomass? The key reasons are:

  • proximity to a major market
  • access to abundant feedstock (biomasses)
  • attractive corporate tax structure compared to other countries
  • well-trained and dedicated workforce
  • access to high-quality researchers
  • supportive government programs

Sarnia is the first cluster to develop with this value chain in mind – from field to sugars to bio-based industries. It is setting the standard for others across Canada to follow. This bio-economy opens up a world of opportunity when it comes to reducing CO₂ emissions, saving energy and reducing our dependence on an oil-based economy.

As I have travelled to bio-based industry conferences over the past few months, it has become clear that the world is moving to the bio-economy: “green growth” and “zero waste” are the buzzwords. Many countries have a strategy to move from fossil to renewables. Canada, and more specifically Sarnia, is focused on the bio-economy, and on developing the transition to hybrid chemistry and building the value chains. Public-private partnerships will be key in this goal, and Sarnia’s model is already full of such examples in action. The Sarnia model is the future, creating new and more sustainable value chains from farm to consumer.


Murray McLaughlin is the executive director of the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre in Sarnia, Ontario. www.bicsarnia.ca . Final Thoughts is an open forum for discussion in Canada’s biomass sector. If you have a point of view to share, contact Scott Jamieson at sjamieson@annexweb.com.


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