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Manitoba Seeing A Products Revolution

It takes a lot of energy to keep the largest greenhouse in Manitoba warm through a bone-chilling winter, and until five years ago, that energy source was natural gas at Vanderveens Greenhouses in Carman.

With gas prices spiking and the cost of heating hundreds of thousands of square feet of greenhouse rising with it, the wholesale flower firm started looking for alternatives.

They found what they were looking for only three miles away a flax straw byproduct from nearby flax straw-fibre processor Schweitzer-Mauduit Canada.

A boiler system originally designed to burn coal was installed and re-engineered to use the flax shives. It now uses about five semi-loads of the material a day during the coldest months to heat the 750,000-sq.-foot greenhouse.

It s working quite well, said Jordan Vanderveen, production manager, at the greenhouse. We needed to find a cheaper way to heat. It keeps costs down.

A bioheating system requires more maintenance than one using natural gas, he noted.

But they expect within five to six years that savings achieved will offset their installation costs.

Vanderveens Greenhouses was one of nearly a dozen sites, including several in southern Manitoba, toured October 24 by delegates to BioFibe 2011. Others included Flax Stalk and Biogas Sweetnams at Winkler, Biocarbon at Rock Lake Colony at Gross Isle and the SWM International at Carman.

Held in Winnipeg, the 2-1/2 day conference attracted key government and business players, including several large international companies, such as Ford Motor Company and DuPont, seeking to incorporate biomaterials and bioenergy into their products and practices.

The Winnipeg conference marks what s now been a decade of a new industry emerging in Manitoba to meet more energy and product needs using the vast volumes of biomass resources produced here in agriculture and forestry.

Last January, the provincial government rolled out a bioproducts strategy to capture opportunities the emerging bioeconomy presents, including setting a target of $2 billion to be generated by 2020 through development of a bioproducts industry here.

Diversification of rural and northern economies, boosting net farm income, and environmental sustainability are at the heart of it, said Daryl Domi t ruk, Morden-based di rector of the Agr i -Food Innovation and Adaptation Knowledge Centre for Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), one of more than a dozen speakers at the event.

What this strategy is, is an expression of the fact that this province is ready to engage in the building of a new economy, as complicated and unknown as that is, he said.

What s really exciting is the entrepreneurship that s emerged in this area, he said.

The flax straw-fibre use at Carman is one very good example of what he describes as industry clusters now establishing in Manitoba around the use of biological raw materials. Others are the Carberry-based Solanyl Bio-polymers Inc., now making a biodegradable plastic resin from potato starch and hemp production and processing through Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Coop at Dauphin.

New companies

I think we ve got in the neighbourhood of 40 to 50 companies at some point along the bioproduct development chain, Domitruk said. Some are just brand new, and emerging. Others are established. And a whole bunch are at the early end of the spectrum looking to get into these kinds of businesses.

Manufacture of innovative bioproducts is one piece of a biostrategy, including composite materials for use in the transport, construction and consumer products sectors.

Bioproduction also means development of renewable energy sources. As much as Manitoba benefits from having one of the lowest electricity costs in North America, roughly three-quarters of our energy still comes from refined petroleum products purchased outside the province, points out Domitruk. That s costing us about $3 billion a year.

A reality here is that we ship an awful lot of money out of here to buy that energy. It would be great to keep even a portion of it back here.

Big players needed

The move toward a bioeconomy will not be without significant challenges, however, not the least of which will be the need for major pools of capital for the significant investment in research and development supporting innovation and technology diffusion.

Manitoba is rapidly moving forward, with many emerging entrepreneurs entering this sector, but given our global context, we will need major players on the local scene, said Domitruk.

One of the things this conference has highlighted is that the bioproducts industry has caught the interest of some of the very big players like Ford and DuPont, he said.

We want to encourage them to come to Manitoba and make some of these upstream investments.

Other challenges that will arise as this sector unfolds will include the bringing together of sectors that have not traditionally worked side by side, plus the anticipated use of more genetically engineered crops, other speakers noted.

A federal-provincial working group on bioproducts has been put in place to develop strategy with provinces.

The conference was cosponsored by the Composites Innovation Centre and the Life Sciences Association of Manitoba.

[email protected]

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… this province is ready to engage in the building of a new economy, as complicated and unknown as that is.

DARYL DOMITRUK

MAFRI director

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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