SunOpta emerging as silent leader in cellulose ethanol race

My story in today’s Toronto Star is about a Brampton, Ont.-based company called SunOpta Inc. that is behind the construction of a 5-million-litre a year cellulosic ethanol commercial demonstration plant being built in Spain. The plant, which will use wheat straw as a feedstock, is supposed to be ready by year’s end. And while it’s barely large enough to be categorized as commercial, the fact is that it will beat Ottawa-based Iogen Corp. in the quest to build the world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

SunOpta is an interesting story. It’s a company that will have $600 million in revenues this year, about 90 per cent coming from being North America’s top distributor of organic foods — everything from fruit bars and tomato sauces to soy milk and fruit juices. It’s been doing cellulosic ethanol production since the 1970s in Europe, but has rekindled those efforts and upgraded its equipment and processes for large-scale production to take advantage of the growing demand for ethanol as a gasoline supplement. Its process uses steam explosion to break the cellulose away from the lignan in biomass, including wheat straw, corn stover and wood waste. This makes it easier for enzymes to access the cellulose (and hemicellulose) and convert more of it to glucose and eventually ethanol.

The company is in the process of sending a pilot plant to China, where it hopes it can sell several commercial-scale plants. It’s also looking at striking partnerships so it can become a major cellulosic ethanol producer in North America. One advantage it has over a company such as Iogen, which despite its high profile is still a startup and a one-trick pony, is that SunOpta has its core organics business to bankroll its early entrance into the market for cellulosic ethanol. Today, ethanol represents just 1 per cent of its business.

That said, there’s plenty of competition in this emerging market. Xethanol Corp., as reported by The Energy Blog, has said it will build a 50-million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol plant by mid-2007. That’s what I would call a real commercial plant.

BTW: The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association released a large biofuels report, which is more or less a wish list of what it would like the federal government to pursue with its made-in-Canada environmental policy.  There are some good ideas in the report, including the push for E85 blends and the need to lower/eliminate taxes on ethanol producers. What I found disturbing is how this association panders to the Harper government by sprinkling images of cabinet members, including Stephen Harper himself, throughout the report. Simply too much brown-nosing for my liking.

2 thoughts on “SunOpta emerging as silent leader in cellulose ethanol race”

  1. The GATO Group holds the 5th largest position in Sunopta, Inc. We are the silent runners who are also the true believers.

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