Chemical valley positions itself as the home of the country’s emerging bioeconomy

Murray McLaughlin
October 2018
BIOTECHNOLOGY

North America’s petroleum-based economy can trace its roots to southwestern Ontario, the site of the continent’s first oil rush in the 1850s. The legacy of that era grew into the “chemical valley” associated with the small city of Sarnia, a tightly packed cluster of petrochemical facilities that turn out a broad range of products used in everything from automotive fuels to chewing gum. The area’s international significance emerged during World War II when it became Polymer Corporation’s flagship site for the production of synthetic rubber, a contribution that later gained iconic status when a portrait of the company’s refinery was placed on the Canadian $10 note.

With more than 60 operations that includes major multinational firms — including Suncor Energy, NOVA Chemicals, ARLANXEO, DuPont, Praxair, and Cabot — the population of chemical valley has traditionally resembled a Who’s Who of the chemical sector. Over the past decade, however, this neighbourhood has been evolving in response to emerging environmental and social priorities that promise to alter supply chains that have traditionally been dominated by petroleum. The scene now includes a new generation of chemical processors who are taking advantage of the region’s other longstanding resource — a rich agricultural landscape.

The Canadian BioDesign Conference, held in Sarnia, Ontario, on September 12.

The Canadian BioDesign Conference, held in Sarnia, Ontario, on September 12.

“You are in a distinct position here in Canada to take a leadership role in the development of bio-based materials and the circular economy,” said Deborah Mielewski, a senior researcher at the Ford Motor Company’s Research and Innovation Center. She was in Sarnia this September to speak at the Canadian BioDesign Conference, an annual event that offers an overview of how this new channel is making its way into global chemical networks.

Deborah Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader with the Ford Motor Company’s Research and Innovation Center

Deborah Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader with the Ford Motor Company’s Research and Innovation Center

Her own workplace in Dearborn, MI, is among those conduits, as she and her colleagues explore the prospects of establishing vehicle material supply lines based on farm field residue, food processing by-products, and even more unlikely items such as cast off cotton found in blue jeans and worn out banknotes. At first glance, she explained, the large laboratory looks more like a barn containing piles of various materials that look like they just fell off a tractor wagon — wheat straw, coconut husks, wood chips, beans, sugar cane, and dandelions.

Not everything on a car can be made from such biologically-based inputs, acknowledged Mielewski; but with an average of 40,000 parts incorporating no fewer than 10,000 chemical substances, she saw a lot of room for innovation that could make a significant portion of a vehicle lighter and easier to recycle.

“We have hundreds of pounds that could be replaced by more sustainable and bio-based materials,” she argued. Among the specific examples her team is examining are composites made from the discarded husks of dried coffee beans, agave fibre generated by tequila makers, and the tightly woven threads of old carpets. Such items, which can often be obtained in large quantities from firms that are only too eager to get them off their premises, are being considered as the raw materials of an emerging manufacturing model that has been dubbed the bioeconomy. The prospects of that model, including its many pros and cons, served as the focus of the day’s proceedings for the Canadian BioDesign Conference.

About 180 people attended the event, which was introduced by Sandy Marshall, Executive Director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), a Sarnia-based business accelerator for enterprises moving into this field. “It represents a group of organizations and companies in Canada that through collaboration and partnership with government, through innovations with colleges and universities, strongly believe in building a vibrant bioeconomy in Canada,” he said.

Among the organizations working with BIC on BioDesign has been the Forest Products Association of Canada, the research network FP Innovations, and BioNB, an agency responsible for bioscience development in New Brunswick. Meaghan Seagrave, Executive Director of BioNB, recounted how BioNB and BIC, along with some 30 companies and 15 academic institutions, mounted a proposal last year in response to the federal government’s effort to establish a series of nation-wide superclusters, research and development powerhouses in strategic areas of the Canadian and global economies.

“Our focus was around establishing a low-carbon economy for Canada that transcended sectors,” she said, noting that the bid has more than $300 million committed to it. “It wasn’t specifically about forestry, it wasn’t specifically about agriculture — it was about the entire value chain.”

The group’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful, but the momentum behind it was maintained. Seagrave is now leading a series of consultations across the country over the next six months in order to support the federal governments plans to nurture this growing sector.

“We are one of the few countries in the world that does not have a bioeconomy strategy, and I think that’s a little bit shameful given that we are country of natural resources,” she said. We’re hoping to develop a national bioeconomy strategy, or at least a framework to start that strategy.”

Advisor, Murray McLaughlin, who started Bioindustrial Innovation Canada and in Sarnia.

Advisor, Murray McLaughlin, who started Bioindustrial Innovation Canada and in Sarnia.

Murray McLaughlin, the former Executive Director of BIC and The Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, suggested that this approach was necessary in light of the glaring absence of any federal initiative to develop the country’s bioeconomy. He added that the importance of that economy was underscored by a series of 2017 reports from the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which highlighted agriculture as a key to the country’s future economic growth.

“If we really want agriculture to meet that demand and that growth that’s being projected, the bioeconomy has to be a key part of that,” said McLaughlin. “It’s not just a matter of producing more grains and oil seeds and shipping them out of the country, but producing something of value.”

The conference showcased the potential of that economic impact during a series of short presentations outlining some of the new enterprises that are forming around the bioeconomy, from rail links serving the specific needs of chemical companies to environmental consultants specializing in priorities such as air quality. Much of this activity is focused on Lambton College, which in conjunction with Western University is coordinating much of the support for new work in various fields. The college was eager to show off to conference participants its new Centre of Excellence in Energy and Bioindustrial Technologies, which has been outfitted with state-of-the-art laboratory facilities that are already gearing up to handle the technical challenges these new firms will be tackling. Nearby is the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, which includes an incubator to commercialize large-scale industrial biotechnology.

But while many of the problems surrounding the use of bio-based materials in existing supply chains can be solved through chemistry, others are more daunting. Stephen Galowitz related his own encounters with such problems as a founding member of the NaturALL Alliance, a multinational collaboration to incorporate organic inputs into the vast global output of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles that have become the ubiquitous containers for water and soft drinks.

He noted how the chemistry, which turns wood or agriculture residue into para-xylene for conversion into PET, is straightforward; however, convincing bottle manufacturers to use a bio-based version of this agent is anything but. He and his colleagues therefore focused instead on convincing the end users — giant bottled-water distributors such as Nestle, Danone and PepsiCo — of the virtues associated with such materials.

“When we went to the downstream converters and told them all about our great stuff, they really didn’t care,” he recalled. “It was very hard to get them to return our calls and to get them to enter into agreements to convert our products and spend money to do pilot testing. But when the end-users call — who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these converters every year — they sat up and looked.”

Even with such allies in the industry, scaling up to meet prospective demand will undoubtedly take time and a great deal of investment. According to Galowitz, NaturALL’s Canadian demonstration operation will barely make a dent in the market.

“At small scale, it’s incredibly hard to push this product through the existing world-scale supply chain,” he said. “This supply chain is massive. It’s been around for 75 years and our pioneer plant, which is a decent-sized plant at 18,000 tonnes per year, is so small compared to these plants that you could fit our plant inside one of them and not find it for a week.”

Another perennial question that surrounds the bioeconomy is whether diverting an ever larger proportion of agriculture to non-food products might eventually compromise the ability to feed the world’s growing population. That critique was especially important to Andrew Richard, founder and chief technology officer of Comet Bio, which in 2016 launched its chemical valley site that turns a variety of agricultural residues into key chemical inputs, including dextrose, hemicellulose extract, and lignin. He described how the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has been reviewing the sustainability of removing these residues, such as corn stover or straw, which will be crucial to addressing a potential backlash against this kind of innovation.

“We look at how we are improving the profitability of an overall acre by taking only the amount of material off that is sustainable, because we certainly don’t want to impact food crops,” said Richard.

For his part, Sandy Marshall remains optimistic about the bridges that are now being built between the chemical industry and agriculture, which should push both sectors into a more promising economic future than either of them might not have been able to reach independently. He remembered his own desire to leave the farm where he grew up, since he could not envision a future filled with autonomous vehicles, drones, and other technology that has subsequently transformed the way in which we harvest all manner of products from the soil.

“I was bored on a tractor but with these kinds of digital tools to work with, I likely would have stayed,” he concluded.