As the primordial wellspring of North America’s petroleum industry in the 19th century, the Sarnia region of southwestern Ontario subsequently grew throughout the 20th century to assume its current role as a premier petrochemical research and development hub. Now, in the 21st century, this role is evolving further to embrace the region’s renewable agricultural feedstocks to supply a new generation of biochemical enterprises.

“When you start talking about the industrial bioeconomy, one of the most important parts of that is petroleum,” says Sandy Marshall, executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC).“It’s starting here again and this time we’re not taking oil out of the ground, we’re taking biomass products off the fields. The most productive agricultural land in all of Canada is located right here and it can compete with the best in the world.”

Based in Sarnia, BIC is a business accelerator investing in start-up firms and established small companies that are working on products rooted in environmentally friendly, sustainable technologies. Last fall BIC furthered these efforts by launching the Centre for the Commercialization of Sustainable Chemistry Innovations (COMM SCI) with some $27 million in funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, the Ontario government and BIC’s partners, which includes Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, Lambton College, and several private companies.

According to Marshall, COMM SCI will enable fledgling sustainable chemistry ventures to take advantage of a strategic location near existing chemical industry infrastructure.

“This infrastructure includes transportation logistics and expertise in the form of skilled tradespersons, fabricators, engineering firms and environmental companies,” he explains. “We can bring those to bear on the sustainable chemistry space, which gives these start-ups a real head start on commercializing.”

By way of example, Marshall points to a local plant to be built by Comet Biorefining, which will turn non-food cellulosic biomass — including corn stover or wheat straw that would typically be regarded as waste — into sugar that can serve as the base for a range of materials such as plastics, resins, and lubricants.

Comet has been collaborating with the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative through a series of town hall meetings in various communities to attract the region’s farmers with an equity stake in the new facility, which is expected to create an annual demand for 75,000 tonnes of biomass from more than 22,000 hectares of land. 

In this way, a new chemical processing operation will be built directly with the support of primary suppliers, just one of many ways Marshall anticipates that these sustainable businesses will distinguish themselves from traditional industries. In addition, he insists that these changes will affect the character of the regional economy for a long time to come.

“If you think about the chemistry cluster that formed here around the 1940s — when the rubber plants were built during the war — that infrastructure is still here and functioning 85 years later, creating economic wealth,” he says. “If we root the industrial bioeconomy of sustainable chemistry into this cluster, we’re talking about many decades of economic development and benefit to the region and to Ontario. And if we’re going renewable for our raw materials, we’re sequestering carbon. We’ll play a role in creating a successful low-carbon economy.”