Biofuels production is not our wisest use of limited land resources
My Clean Break column this past week looks at the missed opportunity of growing crops for biofuel production when making green chemicals is a higher value proposition, both economically and environmentally.
About seven million tonnes of grain corn was grown in Ontario in 2011, and by year’s end roughly 30 per cent of that is expected to go toward ethanol fuel production.
Let’s ignore for the moment the whole food-versus-fuel debate, and assume that devoting nearly a third of Ontario corn production to making renewable fuel doesn’t help drive up global food prices, or for that matter, reduce our capacity to feed the world.
Let’s focus instead on the use of corn as part of a greenhouse-gas reduction strategy that returns more economic value per harvested bushel. Through this lens, is biofuel production the best use of a renewable but also land-limited resource?
Corn, after all, doesn’t have to be made into ethanol and burned in the gas tanks of our cars to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It can also be used to make a variety of “green” chemicals that form the basis of a wide variety of products currently made from petroleum-based chemicals.
Let’s take, for example, Burlington, Ont.-based EcoSynthetix, which takes starch from corn to make certain biopolymers. These biodegradable biopolymers can displace petroleum-based ingredients used to make coatings for packaging and cardboard, adhesives, carpet backing, building materials and a wide range of other products.
John van Leeuwen, chairman and chief executive of EcoSynthetix, which had a successful initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange in August, says he can make $35 worth of biolatex for every bushel of corn the company consumes in its process.
Ethanol, by comparison, fetches about $10 for every bushel of corn, he says. Indeed, the amount of corn that’s consumed annually by 10 large ethanol production plants – out of about 200 in North America—could probably supply enough starch for the entire emulsion polymer market worldwide if it were to switch to 100 per cent biopolymers.
More than that, EcoSynthetix’s biopolymer can compete head on with petroleum-based polymers that currently dominate the marketplace, unlike the heavily-subsidized ethanol industry. “We don’t need subsidies. We can actually go into a deal and offer a discount against petroleum-based products to win business,” says van Leeuwen.
Asked about the growing volume of corn consumed by the ethanol industry, van Leeuwen, without pointing fingers, responds sensibly. “We really need to be thoughtful as an industry to make sure what we make derives maximum value from our agricultural feedstocks.”
Such wise advice could be directed to Canada’s bioproducts sector as a whole, which as I wrote in August has been shrinking when it should be flourishing. That was the conclusion of a report by the Richard Ivey School of Business, which called Canada’s performance on the global stage “disappointing.”
In that report, ethanol represented more than two-thirds of Canada’s bio-products market, while higher-value polymers accounted for just 2 per cent and organic chemicals 12 per cent. In the area of green chemicals, Canada’s landscape was described as “stagnant.”
This isn’t just about corn; it’s also about how we choose to use agricultural residues, municipal organic waste, wood waste, algae biomass, and non-food crops.
Does it make sense to just burn this material for energy, or convert it into fuel so it can be burned? Or, should we be doing a better job of targeting niche markets with high-value “green” products that are just as effective at reducing our dependence on fossil fuels?
“There is an overemphasis on biomaterials as a source for energy,” says Dr. Rui Resendes, executive director of Kingston-based GreenCentre Canada, which helps commercialize green chemistry innovations coming out of Canadian universities.
And that energy isn’t as green as often claimed. After all, Resendes points out, the fertilizers used to grow crops are petroleum-based, as are many other products consumed along the supply chain.
“Just because you pluck it out of farmer’s field doesn’t mean it’s sustainable,” he says, adding that the entire value chain has to be considered. This is where green chemistry and the products it supports play a crucial role. “I’m a firm believer in technologies that are addressing niche markets where volumes are much smaller and margins are much higher.”
Green chemicals may be a broad category, but it’s one that serves highly targeted markets where petroleum-based products currently dominate, including the manufacture of fertilizers, polymers, and lubricants, to name a few.
And, as EcoSynthetix is demonstrating, you can be competitive and aim for profitability without relying on subsidies.
This isn’t to suggest we abandon biofuels. Renewable jet fuel, for instance, is emerging as an attractive subcategory of green fuels and fulfills a role that electricity, while an alternative source of energy for consumer vehicles, simply can’t based on current-day technology.
But certainly Canada can have a much more balanced portfolio, and that means doing a better job of nurturing our green chemistry sector, and – in the particular case of corn – getting more pop per kernel.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.