When American carmaker Henry Ford began manufacturing cars at the turn of the last century, he saw potential to use plant-based materials such as soybean and flax resins in automotive bodies, and latex made from goldenrod in tires.
Cheap oil shelved those ideas for a century. But as crude oil supplies tighten, use of renewable plant materials for energy and product is the way of the future, said the keynote speaker opening this month’s Capturing Opportunities forum in Brandon.
“Sometimes reaching back into the past can tell us where the future may be,” said Murray McLaughlin, president and CEO with the Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (SCA) in Sarnia.
McLaughlin, a former deputy minister of Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food and one-time president of Ag-West Biotech, was one of nearly two-dozen speakers at the two-day forum on the opportunities a bio-based economy presents for adding value to regional and national agriculture and natural resources.
A term still relatively new within agricultural circles, a bioeconomy is a renewable energy economy based on the use of plant-based or animal-based materials as basic inputs for energy or industrial processing. Bioproducts are materials or fuels made from forestry and agriculture products including liquid biofuels, biomaterials such as textiles and insulation, bioplastics, biochemicals and biomass, such as compressed wheat straw used for heating.
An emerging bioeconomy bodes well for agriculture, which will transition into a sector producing farm beyond food commodities, McLaughlin told the opening of the forum, if it can respond to an “unprecedented convergence of change and demographics” that’s coming. The sector will move from producing basic food commodities to one charged with addressing the planet’s biggest challenges and greatest needs, he said.
Speaking on the use of biomass energy sources, McLaughlin spoke positively about the benefits to rural areas. Production will be closer to home, with resulting economic benefits accruing to rural areas. An end will come to building manufacturing plants far from energy sources.
“We’ve been able to pipeline oil all the way from Alberta to Sarnia,” he said referring to the now petrochemical- dependent chemical industry cluster in southern Ontario.
But that will not be the case with biomass energy sources. “The economics get distorted fairly quickly if you go too far away,” he said. “The biomass plants will be smaller and they’re going to have to be centred around the geographic areas where we collect the biomass.”
In Sarnia, where Canada’s largest concentration of chemical firms is based, they now use the term “hybrid chemicals,” which entails more bio-based chemicals from plant-based materials merged with those from the petrochemical industry over time, he said.
“Bioplastics, fibre materials for the auto industry and other uses, starches and crops for non-food uses such as paper and biomass conversion into value-added energy… these things are going to be critical,” he said.
Yet, a transition to a bioeconomy, and advancement of the production systems and technologies to drive it will not occur by happenstance. Canada needs a national strategy to make it happen and he has yet to see a plan emerge. That compares with Europe and Asia where plans for moving to a bioeconomy are well in place and have outlooks as far as 2025.
“I have a hard time finding plans that will take us out to 2015,” he said.
“We have to be looking at this now. Time is not on our side.”
More than 30 companies in Manitoba produce bioproducts, including Carberry-based Solanyl Bio-polymers Inc., making a biodegradable plastic resin from potato starch, Sun Prime Extracts, a functional food business at Russell developing an alfalfa powder for human consumption, and hemp and flax straw-fibre processor Schweitzer-Mauduit Canada at Carman.
Flax fibre fire logs and wheat-straw erosion-control blankets to keep topsoil from blowing away are other made-in-Manitoba bioproducts.
In January, the province of Manitoba rolled out Growing Green: The Manitoba Bio- Products Strategy to help draw together government, industry and research institutions to move the province’s bioproducts industries forward.
Its growth is expected to create an additional 700 jobs in the next 10 years and generate an annual revenue of $2 billion by 2020, Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives Stan Struthers told the Capturing Opportunities conference.
In November Manitoba will host Biofibe 08, an international conference to showcase Manitoba bioproducts and the emerging companies producing them.