My Clean Break column this week reports on a new study out of the Richard Ivey School of Business, which takes a look at the state of the bioproducts industry in Canada. The researchers behind the report analyzed Statistics Canada data between 2003 and 2009 and what they found was a disturbing negative trend — the industry is shrinking, not growing, at a time when bioproducts are desperately needed as part of a strategy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels; also at a time when the United States and other regions are showing a strong commitment to bioproducts and are enjoying the associated growth.
What’s going on? Well, for one the bulk of bioproducts made in Canada are first-generation biofuels, such as corn ethanol, or other forms of bioenergy. We don’t give enough support to biochemistry research and product development, or higher value non-fuel markets such as alternative plastics, which in my view are much more exportable down the road. We are throwing money at corn ethanol and not doing enough to support and help commercialize next-generation biofuels produced from algae or cellulosic conversion technologies.
I’m pasting my column below, though before you read there are some caveats here. The data analyzed doesn’t cover the past two years, so there may be some positive signs not accounted for in this report. Also, Ontario appears to be doing much better than the rest of Canada, though this is not to suggest there’s enough being done in Ontario. Anyway, I think this report is an important wake-up call for Canada. Sure, we’re blessed with forestry and agricultural resources, but are we satisfied just growing and selling commodities? Are we going to continue down the path of selling our raw natural resources to other countries, only to purchase it all back in the form of higher-value products? Once again, Canada lacks a vision and has no real plan to lead the world on bioproduct development, even though it has the capacity to do so. Click below to read the full column: Continue reading Shrinking “bioproducts” sector a worrisome trend in Canada, but Ontario is holding its own→
My Clean Break column today revisits the importance of producing biofuels from algae, especially in the case of producing renewable fuels for the airline industry, which can’t electrify its fleet like we can with cars and trucks. But I also zoom in on some research conducted at the University of Western Ontario, led by biochemistry professor Wankei Wan.
Wan and his team created a tabletop algae pond in their lab — in this case, a raceway pond design — and monitored the growth of a type of algae called Chlorella kessleri under certain light and temperature conditions. They then replicated the setup, only this time they circulated the algae in the pond through an area that was exposed to low-level static magnetic fields. An electromagnet was used in this experiment, though Wan says they could have also used a permanent magnet no stronger than a typical fridge magnet.
So what did they observe? Seems algae thrive under a certain level and length of exposure to magnetic fields. Wan’s team, in fact, found a level of optimum exposure that led to a quadrupling of growth of the biomass, the oil inside the algae and in-cell antioxidants, such as Astaxanthin. Wan believes the approach could be used to help boost algae production for both biofuel production and the production of food supplements based on the antioxidant nutrients found in algae.
Actually, while this is a potential benefit for biofuels, Wan sees a much larger opportunity to use magnetism to boost growth for the production of high-value products — i.e. chemicals and nutrients (such as Astaxanthin) that can fetch much more in the market than biofuels. His research is expected to appear later this year in the peer-reviewed journal Bioelectromagnetics.
Wan isn’t the first to observe this phenomenon. Researchers have been exploring the effects of both magnetism and low-level frequencies on simple-cell organisms such as algae and bacteria for a few years now, and in most cases they have observed growth stimulation. This study provides a good overview of that earlier research.
The Canada-Wide Science Fair was recently held and, as usual, there were some terrific projects from some terrific young minds. One in particular was a project by Grade 9 Havergal student Mikaela Preston called “A Population Dynamics Study in Algal Bioreactors.” Preston, working with Dr. Brad Bass at the University of Toronto and representing Ontario (York Region) in the fair, won the platinum award. She had learned that most research on algae as a possible source of biofuel is based on the study of specific strains or monocultures. But would algae growth benefit by mixing strains? That’s what Preston wanted to find out, so she went ahead and grew two different types together and found that, yes, the different algae strains grew better together than apart, suggesting that mixing strains may be a better and ultimately more economic approach to producing biofuels from algae.
Congrats Mikaela, let’s hope 10 years from now you’re leading research in this important area. We need kids like you that are engaged in their energy future.
I already posted on L.A.-based Rentech’s plans to build a $500-million jet fuel biorefinery four hours north of Sault St. Marie, Ontario, using residual crown timber. My latest Clean Break column looks at that project in more detail and against the backdrop of a coming European Union aviation “carbon” tax that will hit all airlines flying into the EU on Jan. 1, 2012.
Also, I had a chance to attend a panel at the BIO World Congress conference in Toronto this week on the challenges of producing renewable jet fuel. The panellists all agreed that producing low-carbon jet fuel from algae, jatropha, camelina and wood was not only technically doable but could be done economically. The potential problem, as one panellist pointed out, is that producers may opt first to make higher value products, such as green chemicals and nutriceuticals, which can fetch a much higher price per litre and, by association, a higher profit. In other words, we can make the green jet fuel, but will we use it as jet fuel?
So far, that’s Rentech’s intention — but will it change its mind? Either way, from a climate perspective, the end product will still presumably displace petroleum-based feedstocks, so it would seem all good in the end.
I had the opportunity this week to visit a St. Marys Cement plant in the small and scenic town of St. Marys, Ontario. A subsidiary of Brazilian cement giant Votorantim Cimentos, the company is working with Toronto-based Pond Biofuels on a project that turns smokestack emissions from the plant into algae. The algae, based on a strain taken from the local Thames River, gobble up CO2, SOx, NOx and other pollutants that are piped into special algae photobioreactors, two of which are housed in a pilot facility located beside the plant. The algae are harvested and can be dried using low-grade waste heat from the cement plant’s kilns. The dried algae can then be burned in the plant’s kilns instead of petroleum coke, helping to reduce the plant’s CO2 emissions. Alternatively — and if the economics justify it — the algae can be processed into biodiesel and other green fuels/chemicals.
I decided, for the first time, to take a video camera with me and film a walkthrough of the pilot facility to give my readers a better sense of how this all works. I’m new to this whole video and movie editing game, but I did manage to put something decent together, which I post here as a YouTube upload. It’s nearly 10 minutes long, but if you’re interested in the process you may find it worth watching. Like I said, it’s my first time doing this — I would appreciate any constructive feedback.
The how, what and why of transitioning to a post-Paris world