Bioenergy

Randy Duffy, research associate, University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, sees potential for corn stover beyond bedding and feed.Photo by Janet Kanters. If green chemistry sounds more like an oxymoron than an opportunity, be prepared for some big surprises in the not-so-distant future.Innovators within the manufacturing industry are getting back to nature and the door is open for farmers to take part. While the production of biofuels remains a popular example of green chemistry, ethanol is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industrial products that are being designed to include more renewable resources. As governments start to wean ethanol companies off of subsidies, Murray McLaughlin, the executive director of the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre in Sarnia, Ont., says farmers can expect to see some positive changes.“Biofuels are important, but the challenge with biofuels is slim margins,” explains McLaughlin. “On the chemical side of things, as long as oil stays above $80 per barrel, we can be competitive with any of the companies in that space and don’t need subsidies.”In the petroleum industry, it’s not uncommon for companies to direct 75 per cent of raw materials into fuel production, but these often account for only 25 per cent of annual revenue. The rest of their income is generated by higher-end products, such as succinic acid, and it has made these products major targets for green chemists. Succinic acid is a specialty chemical used to make automotive parts, coffee cup lids, disposable cutlery, construction materials, spandex, shoe soles and cosmetics. It is usually made with petroleum, but BioAmber, a company that hopes to finish building North America’s largest bio-based chemical plant in Sarnia next year, has found a way to make succinic acid using agricultural feedstocks. By using agricultural feedstocks instead of petroleum in its process, BioAmber produces a product that is not only more environmentally friendly but also, critically, costs less than petroleum-based succinic acid. In some applications, it performs even better than its petroleum-based competitors. Babette Pettersen, BioAmber’s chief commercial officer, explains how the new technology is outperforming its traditional competitors.“Succinic acid offers the highest yield on sugar among all the bio-based chemicals being developed because 25 per cent of the carbon is coming from CO2, which is much cheaper than sugar,” says Pettersen. Assuming $80 per barrel of oil and $6 per bushel of corn, BioAmber’s product pencils out at more than 40 per cent cheaper than succinic acid made from petroleum. “Our process can compete with oil as low as $35 per barrel,” Pettersen adds. The increased efficiency of the company’s process reduces the need for raw product, for example, from two kilograms of sugar to make one kilogram of ethanol to less than one kilogram of sugar to produce one kilogram of succinic acid.The new plant is projected to purchase an annual quantity of liquid dextrose from local wet mills, which is equivalent to approximately three million bushels of corn. BioAmber’s yeast, the organism that produces bio-based succinic acid, can utilize sugar from a variety of agricultural feedstocks (including cellulosic sugars that may be produced from agricultural residuals such as corn stover when this alternative becomes commercially available).Randy Duffy, research associate at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, co-authored a recent study on the potential for a commercial scale biorefinery in Sarnia, Ont. The idea of producing sugars from agricultural residuals is attractive to companies like BioAmber, which faces public pressure against converting a potential food source into an industrial product, but also to farmers looking to convert excess field trash into cash. “We’re at the point where some fields probably have too much corn stover and this is an opportunity for farmers if they want to get rid of their stover,” says Duffy. “Some farmers are using it for bedding and feed, but there’s a lot of potential corn stover out there not being used or demanded right now.”In fact, the report estimated that more than 500,000 dry tonnes of corn stover are available in the four-county region of Lambton, Huron, Middlesex and Chatham-Kent, and the refinery could convert half of it into cellulosic sugar annually, at a relative base price for corn stover paid to the producer of $37 to $184 per dry tonne, depending on sugar prices and sugar yields. McLaughlin says that with more and more companies look into building facilities like biorefineries, the potential benefits for farmers multiply exponentially. At the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre alone, McLaughlin says, there are three green chemistry companies already working in pilot demonstration scale operations to produce ethanol from wood waste, butanol from fermented wheat straw or corn stover, and plastic pellets with hemp, flax, wheat straw or wood fibres in them. On a full-scale basis, any one of these has significant potential to help farmers penetrate entirely new markets.Although these green products are exciting, McLaughlin strongly believes green chemistry is not going to completely replace oil and he tries to impress this on others. “There are such large volumes of these chemicals produced from oil, I don’t think we ever will get to the point where we can displace these chemicals,” he says, “but we can complement them.” He says Woodbridge’s BioFoam, a soy-based foam used in automobile interiors as seat cushions, head rests and sunshades, is an excellent example of a hybrid product that uses green technology and petroleum technology. In order for the green chemistry industry in Ontario to realize its maximum potential, he believes everyone involved needs to consider the oil industry as a potential ally rather than the enemy. “The petroleum industry already knows the chemical markets and they’ve got the distribution,” he says, “so, who better to partner with?”   What, exactly, makes some chemistry ‘greener’?Green chemistry is a relatively new concept, but rather than simply claim to be more environmentally friendly, the philosophy is defined by structured principles. Put simply, these technologies, processes, and services are required to prove safer, more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. In 1998, Anastas and Warner defined the 12 principles of green chemistry.Prevention – Avoid creating waste rather than treating or cleaning it up after the fact.Atom economy – Synthetic methods must maximize the incorporation of all materials.Less hazardous chemical syntheses – Design synthetic methods that are least toxic to human health and the environment.Designing safer chemicals – Chemical products should be designed to be effective but with minimal toxicity.Safer solvents and auxiliaries – Avoid the unnecessary use of auxiliary substances and render harmless when used.Design for energy efficiency – Energy requirements of processes should be minimized for their environmental and economical impact. Use of renewable feedstocks – Raw materials should be renewable whenever technically and economically practical.Reduce derivatives – Use of blocking groups, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes, etc., requiring additional reagents should be minimized or avoided if possible.Catalysis – Catalytic reagents are superior to stoichiometric reagents.Design for degradation – Environmental persistence of chemical products should be minimal.Real-time analysis for pollution prevention – Real-time monitoring and control of hazardous substances must be developed.Inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention – Substances used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for accidents.
Turning lower-grade canola into biodiesel presents some challenges, but Prairie researchers are finding innovative ways to overcome those challenges. They’re developing new approaches that are more efficient, produce better biodiesel and valuable byproducts, and help improve the economics of biodiesel production from damaged canola seeds. “In the short term, we’re working with others to generate a market for low-quality canola. So if a grower has a bin that overheats or a canola field that gets caught under a snow bank, we can at least redeem some value for that material for them by having an industry that is receptive to frost-damaged, heated and field-damaged materials,” explains Dr. Martin Reaney, research chair of Lipid Quality and Utilization at the University of Saskatchewan. “In the longer run, we are identifying added value in the crop. In my experience, when somebody discovers an added value opportunity, it doesn’t typically result in a much higher price. But it does tend to stabilize the price. We’re introducing technology that may lead to a more stable price by adding another market to the meal and oil markets for the canola crop.” Reaney has been investigating opportunities for using damaged canola seed for many years, including research when he was at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and now at the University of Saskatchewan. He and his research team have tackled the topic from a number of angles. “When we first went into making canola into biofuels, [Canada] didn’t have the subsidies that were available in the United States and Europe. So we needed to take advantage of low-cost materials. For that purpose, we looked at seed that had been damaged either in the field or in storage,” he says. “First we studied how to get the oil out of the seed. A lot of damaged seed has lost its structure, and it is not efficiently pressed to recover oil. So we developed more efficient pressing and extraction technology.” Another early issue was that sources of damaged canola seed tend to be scattered all over the place, with amounts varying from year to year and place to place. Reaney says, “So we came up with the hub-and-spoke approach, to collect and bring the seed to some common locations for processing.” The researchers also improved the process of converting the oil into biodiesel. “Damaged seed produces quite low-quality oil with lots of different problems. So we had to figure out a very robust way of making biodiesel so that, no matter what, the biofuel would have good quality,” notes Reaney.Although canola biodiesel has advantages over biodiesel made from products like tallow and soybean oil, its properties are still somewhat different from petroleum-based diesel. So Reaney’s research group has developed processing technologies to improve such canola biodiesel properties as oxidative stability and low-temperature performance. He notes, “Low-temperature performance hasn’t turned out to be a big problem with canola mainly because when you blend it with other diesel fuel, like with a Canadian winter diesel fuel, it takes on the performance of that fuel.” One of the overarching themes of Reaney’s research is to develop techniques that are practical on the Prairies. “A lot of researchers will grab the latest technology, a ‘super-’ this or ‘ultra-’ that, and the equipment is very expensive. In my experience, western Canadian biofuel producers usually can’t use that kind of technology,” he explains. “So we look for the best biofuel properties – we can’t ever compromise on the properties of the material – that can be produced with rather conventional, simple, low-cost equipment.” Along with using damaged seed to reduce input costs, the researchers have been exploring other ways to improve the economics of biodiesel production. “[For example,] the catalyst for making biodiesel is actually quite expensive. We came up with a technology to lower the cost of that catalyst to about one-third of its original cost,” he says. They are also developing a novel approach that turns a biodiesel processing waste into a valuable byproduct. “We developed a special lithium-based catalyst for biodiesel production, and we’ve developed a method of converting the leftover catalyst into lithium grease [a heavy-duty, long-lasting grease],” says Reaney. “Lithium grease is broadly used all over the world – in heavy equipment, trains, planes, automobiles.” They are now scaling up the process for use at a commercial scale. Another current project involves making biofuels that are “drop-in” fuels. “Right now, biodiesel still has to be handled somewhat differently than [petroleum-based] diesel,” he explains. “But there are approaches to make it into a drop-in fuel. A drop-in fuel means it would have exactly the properties of diesel. You would be able to use it as is and it would require no special handling.” As well, the researchers are exploring motor oil technology that uses vegetable oils. “We have been working on trying to get the stability of these oils high enough for use in motor oil applications. We think we have some really good technology for this goal as well.”Reaney’s research on industrial uses for lower-grade canola has been supported by many agencies over the years such as Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. His research also has received support from such agencies as GreenCentre Canada and from such companies as Milligan Biofuels Inc. (formerly Milligan Biotech).Opportunities and challengesThe Canadian biodiesel industry has encountered a number of hurdles and has not grown as quickly as some people had hoped it would. For instance, the industry is still working towards meeting the increased demand arising from the Canadian government’s requirement for a minimum of two per cent renewable fuel content in diesel fuel. This requirement came into effect in 2011. According to Reaney, one of several issues hampering the Canadian biofuel industry has been the contentious food-versus-fuel debate, about the issue of using farmland to produce biofuel feedstocks. Reaney’s group was ahead of the curve on this issue by focusing on the use of non-food grade canola to make biodiesel. But beyond that, his opinion is that food production and fuel production are not mutually exclusive. “It isn’t food versus fuel; it is food and fuel,” he says. “All these biofuel industries actually produce more food than would have been produced had they not entered the biofuel industry, because they are always producing a side stream that is edible. So I think that issue has been addressed by the biofuels industry, but I don’t know whether the public has caught up.”Milligan Biofuels, based at Foam Lake, Sask., is one of the companies managing to weather the ups and downs of the Canadian biodiesel industry. Along with making its own improvements to biodiesel production processes, the company has adopted some of the advances made by Reaney’s research group.“Their research proved the ability to produce consistent biodiesel from damaged seed, and that’s our business model,” says Len Anderson, director of sales and marketing for Milligan Biofuels. The company manufactures and sells biodiesel and biodiesel byproducts, and provides canola meal and feed oil to the animal feed sector. All of its products are made from non-food grade canola, including green, wet, heated or spring-threshed canola. “Milligan Biofuels is built in and by the ag community for the ag community,” notes Anderson. “That’s why it is where it’s at and why it’s doing what it’s doing.” He outlines how this type of market for damaged canola helps growers. “It’s giving them an opportunity for a local, reliable, year-round market. It creates a significant value for damaged canola because we aren’t just using it for cattle feed; we’re using the oil to produce biodiesel. So we’re probably on the higher end as far as value created for damaged seed. It creates value for what was once almost a waste product, is what it boils down to.”
Oct. 1, 2013, Guelph, Ont. – Great Lakes Biodiesel has begun production in Welland, Ont., creating a potential new market for Ontario soybeans.The facility will be Canada's largest biodiesel plant, producing 170 million litres of biodiesel annually, according to a press release from Grain Farmers of Ontario. The feedstock for this facility will be sourced primarily from processors who currently crush soybeans grown in the province of Ontario.Grain Farmers of Ontario and Soy 20/20 have worked together to complete research to encourage the Ontario government that a made-in-Ontario biodiesel mandate is good for the provincial economy and good for the environment. Nationally, Canada has a two per cent biodiesel mandate, and with the expansion of production in Ontario, Grain Farmers of Ontario hopes to see the implementation of a two per cent provincial biodiesel mandate.
July 17, 2013, Halifax – The Government of Canada is investing toward the canola and soybean industries in Eastern Canada, announced Gerry Ritz, minister of agriculture, in Halifax today.The Eastern Canada Oilseeds Development Alliance (ECODA) will receive an investment of up to $3.3 million from the AgriInnovation Program's industry-led research and development stream under Growing Forward 2 to conduct research focused on increasing the successful and profitable production of high-quality canola and food-grade soybeans on eastern Canadian farms, Ritz announced. This project builds on a previous investment of $3.1 million under the first Growing Forward's Developing Innovative Agri-Products and $747,000 under the Agricultural Innovation Program. ECODA is a not-for-profit organization based in Charlottetown, P.E.I., that works with producers, processors, exporters, researchers and governments to increase the economic value and export potential of the canola and soybean industries in Eastern Canada. One of the alliance's objectives is to make Eastern Canada a bigger player in the European and Japanese markets for food-grade soybeans and in producing high-quality canola to supply Canadian and international markets."The ECODA model is focused on gaining international market share by linking growers, processors and exporters to the scientific research they need to win on competitiveness, productivity and uniqueness in those markets," said Rory Francis, president of ECODA, in a press release. 
No one wants to buy soybeans at a roadside stand, so there are fewer opportunities for grain farmers who want to capture more value at the farm gate. But a cleverly designed processing unit is helping some growers earn direct sales and become more self-sufficient with little extra effort or investment.
Feb. 25, 2013, Ottawa, ON - The federal government is formally shutting down its controversial biofuels subsidy program, saying companies producing biodiesel have failed to meet ambitious production targets. Read the full story here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-ending-biofuels-subsidy-over-unfulfilled-industry-promises/article8983024/  
Feb. 10, 2015 - The federal government is investing $3.7 million to help Integrated Grain Processors Cooperative (IGPC) Ethanol Inc. install a Fiber Separation Technology (FST) system to help boost production through operational efficiencies. According to a news release, the investment will enable IGPC Ethanol to have a higher output of ethanol, corn oil and distillers' grains, develop new higher value animal feed products and lower the plant's energy consumption. The introduction of FST at the IGPC plant allows for the early separation of fibre from corn prior to its fermentation, increasing the efficiency of the distillation process and producing a cleaner fibre product. The investment enables IGPC Ethanol to purchase approximately 18 million bushels (up from 16 million currently) of corn grain from local farmers for use as feedstock. Founded in 2002 by 780 farmers and agri-businesses, IGPC Ethanol is a division of IGPC Inc. and is one of Ontario's largest cooperatives. It employs 50 full-time staff at its plant in Aylmer, Ont. The plant began commercial operation in December 2008.    
December 6, 2012, Chatham, ON - OMAFRA is supporting an innovative greenhouse project in Chatham-Kent that will create up to 90 local jobs, strengthen the local economy and help the environment. In a first of its kind in North America, Cedarline Greenhouses will use surplus heat and carbon dioxide from a local ethanol plant to produce up to 21-million kilograms of Ontario grown tomatoes each year. This project will lower heating costs for the greenhouse by 40 per cent while increasing tomato production by five per cent.   Quick Facts This project will create up to 90 direct and indirect jobs upon completion and up to 400 direct and indirect job opportunities as it meets its expansion target. Ontario’s ethanol industry produces more than 885 million litres of ethanol annually (2011-2012), has created over 360 skilled jobs in rural Ontario, and has generated more than $635 million in capital investments. Almost 78 per cent of all Ontario greenhouses are located in the counties of Chatham-Kent and Essex. Quotes "This investment supports innovation in Ontario’s agri-food and agri-products industries and brings skilled jobs to Chatham-Kent. This project is a great example of how agriculture is growing Ontario’s future."Ted McMeekin - Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs "The support from the provincial government will help us effectively supply Ontarians with high-quality, affordable and locally grown tomatoes and create jobs in our Chatham-Kent community."Greg Devries - CEO of Cedarline Greenhouses and Truly Green Farms"We are excited to be partnering with Cedarline Greenhouses for a project that will reduce operating costs and strengthen the competitiveness of the greenhouses. This truly is an environmentally sustainable way to produce high-quality products for the consumer year round."Ken Field - Founder and Chairman of GreenField Ethanol
Sept. 6, 2012 - With so much corn being diverted to be used in ethanol, poultry and livestock farmers are paying more for feed, even more so because of the drought. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has delved into this debate, with opinions from three individuals affected by the debate and asked if the corn crop should be used, given the current marlet, be used to produce food or fuel? The three commentators are Mike Giles (president of the Georgia Poultry Federation), the CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, Randall J. Doyal and Emory Forrester - the director of feed milling and delivery for Fieldale Farms Corp. Each commentator discusses a different issue on the topic, and some interesting points are raised. For the full discussion, visit the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Aug. 20, 2012, Columbia, MO - America is looking for more biofuel through the use of crops such as corn and soybeans, but concerns about higher food prices persist when land for biofuel displaces land for food crops. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri are hoping to increase biofuel production without impacting food production. MU scientists are beginning a study to determine how non-food biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, grow in marginal land along the floodplains, where most crops cannot thrive. Now, the team in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources has received a $5.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further its research. The project is part of a $125 million international project to further research that will study how to use marginal land to grow high-yield, biofuel crops and convert them to advanced biofuels. “In the 10 states along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, 100 million acres of marginalized agricultural land is unused or underutilized often due to frequent flooding” said Shibu Jose, H.E. Garrett Endowed Professor in the School of Natural Resources and director of the MU Center for Agroforestry. “If farmers can plant just 10 percent of marginal floodplain land with crops designated for use in biofuels, we can produce 6 to 8 billion gallons of liquid fuel annually. Planting this land with crops designated for biofuels would have little to no effect on the food supply.” As part of the five-year grant project, MU researchers are planning several trials. One trial will field test 15 types of biomass sorghum and 15 types of switchgrass. Switchgrass is a perennial plant that needs little care once planted. Sorghum is an annual crop, but requires less water and fertilizer compared to corn. In addition, the strong root systems reduce erosion and water pollution by filtering water as it runs into streams and rivers. The team will identify which varieties grow best under flood and drought conditions, as well as in different soil types. To make biofuel, farmers grow crops that are harvested and shipped to a nearby facility where the biomass is condensed into small pellets or converted to fuel. The pellets also can be shipped to larger plants where they are converted into fuel if rural plants are not equipped for the biofuel conversion. Jose envisions a network of farmers producing biomass and shipping it to local pellet-producers, who will ship the pellets to refineries. “We need to build a network of pellet producers because transportation costs need to be low enough that farmers can still profit off of growing crops for biofuel,” Jose said. “With the smaller condensed pellets, we can transport a great amount of energy at a low cost.” As a land-grant university, research benefitting the state is part of MU’s mission. This research which helps provide American consumers with abundant, affordable agricultural products was part of the goal of the Morrill Act, which established land-grant institutions in 1862.
Jul. 19, 2012, Washington, DC - In response to a new economic study on the impact of corn ethanol production on food prices and commodity price volatility, a coalition of livestock and poultry groups is urging Congress to reform the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which mandates the amount of ethanol that must be produced annually.  Conducted by Thomas Elam, Ph.D., president of FarmEcon LLC, an Indiana agricultural and food industry consulting firm, the study found that federal ethanol policy has increased and destabilized corn, soybean and wheat prices to the detriment of food and fuel producers and consumers. The RFS, first imposed in 2005 and revised in 2007, this year requires 15.2 billion gallons of ethanol to be produced. Most of that amount is blended into gasoline at 10 percent. “The increases we’ve seen in commodity prices are strongly associated with the RFS mandate,” said Elam. “At the same time, we haven’t seen the promised benefits on oil imports or gasoline prices. This means that while Americans are forced to pay more for food, they’re also not seeing lower prices at the pump; it’s a lose-lose situation.”As a Senate Biofuels Investment and Renewable Fuels Standard Market Congressional Study Group examines several aspects of the RFS, the study will provide critical facts needed to reform the current standard. Among other results, the study found that because of the RFS: Ethanol, because its energy cost is higher than gasoline and because of its negative effect on fuel mileage, added about $14.5 billion, or 10 cents a gallon, to motorists’ fuel costs in 2011. Increased ethanol production since 2007 has had no effect on gasoline production or oil imports, contrary to supporters’ claims. Corn used for ethanol production rose 300 percent from 2005 to 2011, increasing from 1.6 billion bushels to 5 billion. (Ethanol production now uses more than 40 percent of the U.S. annual corn supply.) Corn now represents about 80 percent of the cost of producing ethanol compared with 40-50 percent before implementation of the mandate. Corn prices jumped to more than $6 a bushel in 2011 from $2 in 2005. The rate of change for the Consumer Price Index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased by 79 percent while it decreased by 41 percent for non-food items since the RFS was revised in 2007. Ethanol production costs and ethanol prices have all but eliminated a market for ethanol blends higher than 10 percent. The United States exported 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011. In addition to the effects of the RFS, the study pointed out that on an energy basis, ethanol, which has only 67 percent of the net energy per gallon of gasoline, never has been priced competitively with gasoline. It also found that, contrary to supporters of the RFS, oil imports have declined not because of increased ethanol production but because of increased domestic crude oil production and higher gasoline and distillate fuel oil yields.In urging reform of the RFS, the coalition cited the Elam study’s conclusion that the mandate should be revised to allow automatic adjustments to reduce incentives for ethanol production when corn stocks are forecast to reach critically low levels. The coalition supports legislation – the “Renewable Fuels Standard Flexibility Act” (H.R. 3097), sponsored by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Jim Costa, D-Calif. – that would require a biannual review of ending corn stocks relative to their total use. If the ratio falls below 10 percent, the RFS could be reduced by 10 percent. If it falls below 7.5 percent, the mandate could shrink by 15 percent; below 6 percent, it could be reduced by 25 percent; and if the ratio falls below 5 percent, the ethanol mandate could be cut by 50 percent. Such relief is extremely urgent, the coalition points out, because the recent spike in corn prices prompted by drought conditions in much of the Corn Belt has analysts predicting the United States will run short of corn this summer. Another short corn crop would be extremely devastating to the animal agriculture industry, food makers and foodservice providers, as well as consumers, says the coalition. Because of the RFS, however, corn-based ethanol manufacturers are protected from sharing the burden of a corn harvest shortfall.   The Elam study was funded by the American Meat Institute, California Dairy Inc., the Milk Producers Cooperative, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Turkey Federation. A full copy of the study is available by clicking here and an infographic summarizing the study’s findings can be downloaded here.
May 18, 2012, Dondo, Mozambique -Mozambique makes history today as it witnesses the opening of the world’s first sustainable cooking fuel facility. Inaugurated by Federal Minister of Agriculture, José Pacheco, the facility will be dedicated to producing ethanol-based cooking fuel for sale with the company’s cookstoves in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. CleanStar’s complete “NDZiLO” cooking solution will offer Mozambican households an affordable new form of cooking that is cleaner, faster and safer than using charcoal. Based in Dondo in Mozambique’s Sofala Province, the facility will produce 2 million litres per year of ethanol-based cooking fuel from surplus cassava supplied to the company by local farmers following CleanStar’s sustainable farming systems. The biofuel manufacturing plant is a key part of the integrated food and energy business of CleanStar Mozambique, a company formed in 2010 by Novozymes and CleanStar Ventures to use Mozambique’s rising urban demand for food and cooking fuel to drive sustainable rural development and environmental restoration. “Today marks an important milestone in the mission to eliminate dirty cooking fuels from Africa’s leading cities”, says CleanStar Mozambique Chairman, Greg Murray. “This facility produces clean cooking fuel in a way that generates a reliable new income stream for local farmers, while ensuring that a continuous and affordable fuel supply reaches urban households. Our private-sector led approach in Mozambique provides an encouraging example for other resource-constrained African countries that are struggling to respond to rising food and energy prices, growing cities, and shrinking forests.“ From charcoal to clean biofuel In preparation for this launch, over the last year CleanStar has been transitioning local subsistence farmers from slash-and-burn farming to more resilient conservation agriculture techniques involving synergistic cultivation of crops and trees to drastically increase their production and nutrition levels. CleanStar provides participating farmers with basic inputs and technical assistance, and purchases their surpluses at its rural agricultural centres in communities around the facility. Surplus cassava is converted to ethanol, and beans, sorghum, pulses and soya are processed into packaged food products for sale in Mozambique’s cities. In Maputo, CleanStar has started pre-sales of its NDZiLO cookstove and cooking fuel products through its company-owned shop network, which is being expanded across the city in preparation for full launch later this year. “We never estimated this much customer demand”, says Thelma Venichand, CleanStar’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “City women are tired of watching charcoal prices rise, carrying dirty fuel, and waiting for the day that they can afford a safe gas stove and reliable supply of imported cylinders. They are ready to buy a modern cooking device that uses clean, locally-made fuel, performs well and saves them time and money.” Rise of a new industry: Clean cooking in African cities The rapid growth of CleanStar Mozambique has been enabled by the finance, long-term vision and technical capabilities of the venture’s strategic shareholder, Novozymes. “Sustainable biofuels have the potential to not only help solve critical energy needs, but also to spark wider positive changes in developing societies”, says Novozymes Executive Vice President Thomas Nagy. “We see this venture as a great example of what we call the biobased economy. Of how sustainable agriculture together with biotech solutions can meet the needs of people around the world.” Throughout Africa, more than 80% of urban families buy charcoal to cook their food, a commodity that is increasing in price as forests retreat, in a market now estimated to be worth more than $10 billion “deforestation dollars” per annum. In Maputo for example, charcoal prices have doubled over the last 3 years. According to the World Health Organization inhaling charcoal smoke has the health impact of smoking two packs of cigarettes per day, and the organization estimates that indoor air pollution from solid fuel use, including charcoal, causes almost 2 million deaths annually. Several companies and organizations are joining Novozymes and CleanStar Ventures in the effort to create a new industry for clean cooking in African cities. ICM of the United States, a global leader in ethanol process technology, helped custom-design, finance, build and commission CleanStar’s highly replicable cooking fuel facility at Dondo. In addition, in November 2011, Bank of America Merrill Lynch provided significant upfront carbon financing to CleanStar Mozambique which is helping to unlock additional equity and debt for the scale up of the business. Discussions are underway with several international and regional counterparties who seek to join the coalition. Read more at www.cleanstarmozambique.com
The Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative (CSPC) and its partners have almost finished putting all the pieces in place for a southern Ontario value chain to turn crop residues into sugars. Those pieces include a feasibility study, a technical-economic assessment and a collaboratively developed business plan. Some important steps still have to be completed, but they are aiming for processing to start in 2018.
The president of a new farm co-op says it's working to sign up 200 to 300 members to supply corn stalks and leaves, also known as stover, as well as wheat stalks, to a proposed new plant in Sarnia, Ont., that will turn the biomass into sugar. The Sarnia Observer reports. | READ MORE
Nobody is more familiar with the fight against weed pressure than organic farmers, but one weed control strategy that works in organic settings might be just as beneficial for conventional growers, according to a Laval University researcher. The secret is mulch. Caroline Halde, a professor in the department of plant science at Laval University in Quebec, says cover cropping for weed control is a proven strategy in organic studies. But she’s also had plenty of interest from conventional no-till growers in the use of cover cropping. “I’ve had no-till farmers come to me who are working with cover crops more and more, and now they are ‘almost organic’ because they use very little inputs in their cropping systems,” she says. “And now they want to make the switch because they’re almost organic but don’t get the premium.” But mulch-based weed control takes cover cropping one step further. In year one, a cover crop is planted as green manure. In year two, a cash crop is planted directly into the mulch, with the mulch serving as the grower’s only form of weed control. Halde, working under the supervision of Martin Entz, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Manitoba, completed a study investigating the use of mulches in an organic high-residue reduced tillage system near Carman, Man., in 2013. In the study, barley, hairy vetch, oilseed radish, sunflower and pea were used as cover crops, then planted with wheat. The best cover crop for weed control and cash crop yield was hairy vetch or a barley-hairy vetch mixture. “Green manure mulches with hairy vetch were effective at reducing weed biomass by 50 per cent to 90 per cent in the no-till spring wheat in 2011 and 2012, compared to other mulches,” Halde concluded. The method is not a magic bullet. Halde says high cover crop biomass is key to achieving good mulch that will effectively choke out weeds the following year. “First, you have to have a good establishment of your cover crop – that’s rule number one,” she says. Poor or excessively wet weather in the spring might hamper cover crop growth. “And another thing is to choose fields that have low weed seed banks, or at least for some particular weeds, particularly wild oats.” In Halde’s study, wild oats and perennial weeds, such as dandelion and Canada thistle, made for challenging conditions. Halde’s study relied on removing a field from production for one full year each cycle, but she says the payoffs can be rewarding. In Western Canada, the benefits of such a system involve water conservation as well as weed control. In Eastern Canada, removing herbicides from a field for a year would also be a major boon for growers nervous about herbicide resistance. “That would be a great advantage, because we see more and more herbicide-resistant weeds in Eastern Canada,” she says. But Halde is currently seeking funding for a study in Eastern Canada on the use of fall cover crops used as mulch in the spring and planted with short-season cash crops – a system which would keep fields in production, so growers do not have to lose a year each cycle. Biomass is keyCarolyn Marshall, a PhD student at Dalhousie University, is currently studying the impacts of no-till green manure management on soil health in organic grain rotations on two sites – at Carman, Man., under the supervision of Martin Entz, and at the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S., under the supervision of Derek Lynch. The project, which is funded by the Organic Science Cluster through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), began in 2013 and will conclude this year. She says cover cropping shows enormous promise for weed control in both organic and conventional systems. “I would love to see more use of cover crops in all systems. I think they can solve all kinds of problems,” she says. Marshall’s project is focused on determining how green manure termination method affects soil health in organic grain rotations, with three tillage intensities applied on all plots: no-till, minimum tillage and spring and fall tillage. At Carman, Marshall’s team is employing a four-year rotation of hairy vetch-wheat-fall rye-soybean plus a red clover-red clover-wheat-soybean rotation. At Truro, the experiment is testing two green manures – pea/oat, and hairy vetch/barley, each followed by a wheat-fall rye-soybean rotation. In the first round at Truro, Marshall says, “We had really good growth of the green manure. Some plots got up to 10 tonnes per hectare of biomass, and it was really effective at stamping out the weeds.” When the experiment was repeated in 2014, a dry spring resulted in limited growth and very thin mulch. “The weeds went berserk in the no-till plots,” Marshall says. “Weed control seems to really depend on getting enough biomass to get a thick enough mulch, and that really depends on the weather.” Termination methods matter, too: when mulches were mowed in the fall at Truro, they decomposed, leaving too little mulch on the soil surface in the spring. When a roller crimper was used instead, the cover crops continued to grow until winterkilled, resulting in heavy mulch cover in the spring. “Researchers in North Dakota, Georgia and New England are also finding that if you don’t get enough biomass to suppress the weeds, they’ll take over your cash crop and cause a lot of problems in a very short time,” she says. It’s early days for this research, but both Halde and Marshall are enthusiastic about the potential for mulch-based weed control in organic and conventional systems alike. “In conventional systems you can use different crops to get more consistent mulch levels, which has a lot of potential to help with long-term control,” says Marshall.        
December 1, 2015 - Once considered a weed, camelina is gaining popularity in some parts of the country as a soil-protecting winter cover crop. Additionally, its seed contains high-quality oil for use in cooking and as biodiesel, offering a renewable alternative to imported petroleum. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists have been on the forefront of studies to make camelina and other novel oilseed crops more profitable for farmers to grow, easier for industry to process, and better performing as finished biofuels and other products. At the Soil Management Research Unit, operated in Morris, Minnesota, by USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), scientists are evaluating the outcome of integrating camelina, canola, pennycress and other oilseeds with plantings of traditional Midwestern crops, such as corn and soybeans. In a recent study published in the April issue of Agronomy Journal, ARS scientists Russ Gesch and Jane Johnson examined the seasonal water use of double cropping and relay cropping-strategies that overlap the growth of winter camelina and soybean. Highlights of their findings are: Under natural rainfall conditions, relay cropping (in which the soybean crop is seeded between rows of growing camelina plants) used less water than double cropping (in which soybean seed is sown right after a camelina harvest, around mid to late June) and produced higher soybean yields.   Relay-cropped soybean yields were lower than those of full-season soybean crops; however, the total oil yield from the relay system (camelina plus soy) was 50 percent greater than the full-season soybean-only crop.   Net economic returns of relay cropping were competitive with those of full-season soybean, while adding the benefits of a cover crop. According to the researchers, the study demonstrates a sustainable way to grow crops for both food and fuel on the same parcel of land, which could potentially offer farmers a dual source of income in a single season. Read more about this research in the November issue of AgResearch.
Oct. 13, 2015, Hamilton, Ont. – G3 Canada Limited will construct a new lake terminal at the Port of Hamilton to originate grains and oilseeds out of Southern Ontario for export to global markets. The 50,000-metric tonne facility will be located at Pier 26 in the Port of Hamilton, just off Queen Elizabeth Way. Grains and oilseeds will be loaded on to vessels for transport to G3's facilities on the St. Lawrence River. From there, they will be shipped onwards to export markets around the world. Construction on the facility is already underway and is slated for completion prior to the 2017 harvest.
The Alberta Biochar program is a recent addition to the work undertaken by Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF) through a partnership with Lakeland College.“We have a saying that not all biochars are created equal,” says Anthony Anyia, lead scientist and manager, Bioresource Technologies with AITF. “Depending on what you want to use biochar for, the feedstock you are using for the biochar may have some other components that may not necessarily be good for the application you are looking at.”Biochar is the material created when biomass is combusted under low oxygen conditions, a process known as pyrolysis. It is a green platform technology with the potential to improve soil and reduce greenhouse gases. Alberta has yet to carry out any large-scale biochar studies, says Anyia, which limits the information available on biochar. Studies underway right now are examining biochar production, standards, quality and different end-use applications.Anyia is hoping that recent funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada, a number of provincial sources as well as industry partners will help provide answers.Producing biocharTwo biochar production units have been acquired for the Alberta Biochar program to demonstrate the biochar production process and produce biochar for different end-use pre-commercial testing. “With this now, we are in a position to make biochar from different feedstocks and we can now work with partners to evaluate the biochar,” says Anyia.Biochar can be made from a variety of materials, pulling on what is available in the area. A forest company could use wood and forest residue or pulp mill waste to make biochar, while a crop producer could use wheat or barley straw or residues from other crops. Biochar could be an important ally in fighting greenhouse gas emissions. While all biomass eventually breaks down, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, if biomass is used in making biochar, biochar stabilizes that biomass, cutting in half the carbon that will eventually be released and allows the carbon to remain sequestered for longer periods. Unlike biofuel that is carbon neutral, biochar is carbon negative and can potentially reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soil. AITF is working with partners, who are using biochar as a horticulture growth media for vegetable crops in greenhouses. Early indications show the same or higher yields achieved and the alleviation of herbicide toxicity. The demonstration phase is presently occurring in Brooks, Alberta, where Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD) has teamed up with a local commercial greenhouse facility and greenhouse growers. Work is also being carried out in British Columbia with a greenhouse company. That project is moving toward commercialization, says Anyia.Bonnie Drozdowski is the program leader for the reclamation group at AITF. Her work is with biochar as a soil amendment, which falls into two categories: land reclamation and marginal soil amelioration.Soil amendments to boost crop yieldThree field seasons of soil trials on a private producer’s field in the Bruce/Tofield area have netted “some really interesting results,” says Drozdowski.Drozdowski stresses that the plots used were small and that the focus was not on the mechanisms or the processes occurring within the soil, but to demonstrate crop response to biochar application into the Bnt horizon of solonetzic soils. The use of biochar was compared to a control treatment and to deep-trenching, and has resulted in improved productivity in the biochar treatments.“We’re really quite positive that these results give us inclination to continue a further scaled-up research program in respect to enhancing marginal solonetzic soils,” says Drozdowski. She notes the trials did not take into consideration operational values; and while the operational costs for using biochar would be the same as deep-trenching, there would be the additional cost of purchasing biochar.However, there would be long-term benefits in using biochar, which would include improving water and nutrient dynamics. “This is speculative because we haven’t done the actual science to prove out what is actually happening, but we believe it is occurring,” cautions Drozdowski.  Reclamation and remediationLand reclamation requirements in the 1980s and early ’90s were not as stringent as they are now and many abandoned oil and gas sites were left in poor condition. “So now when we’re going back to do the reclamation, it’s quite challenging to get the same level of productivity on the sites or even the same capability, which is how reclamation in the province is governed,” says Drozdowski.Coupled with that is the directive to not introduce new plant species or sources of weeds to the reclaimed sites. “Because biochar is an inert substance in nature but still has beneficial soil properties, it can enhance the productivity of soil without the subsequent issues that might be associated with a typical amendment application,” says Drozdowski.Trials for this use of biochar will get underway in 2013 with two wellsites located in the Peace Region. AITF will be partnering with novaNAIT’s Northern Boreal Research Institute in Peace River where biochar and mechanical pulp sludge will be evaluated against a control on two different soil types. And, work is being undertaken with a partner to determine if biochar can be used as a filtration media for processing affected water.Also, because biochar is a fine material that faces up to a 30 per cent loss when applied on an operational large scale, which limits its applications, research is underway to determine if it is feasible to create a higher value biochar product that is easier for large-scale applications.
The equipment used to maintan Ontario's Bruce Trail (which runs from Niagara to Tobermory) leaves a significant environmental footprint. Enter Canada’s soybean farmers and renewable, green lubricant products made from plant-based oils. | READ MORE
September 22, 2015 - A new vegetable oil-based multi-purpose lubricant for sale in Canada is about to become a bit more local.
Sept. 16, 2015 - Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (AI Bio) has launched a new funding program - Alberta Bio Future, Research and Innovation - aimed at advancing knowledge that accelerates growth of new bioindustrial products or bioindustrial technologies for the benefit of Albertans. Discovery and developmental research are strategic priorities of Alberta Bio Future (ABF) – AI Bio's flagship bioindustrial program. Bioindustrial products from Alberta – derived from sustainable agricultural or forest biomass – are already being used in several sectors, including the personal care, chemical and energy industries, as well as construction and manufacturing. These bioproducts are helping to meet the world's growing demand for 'green' solutions; they have desirable qualities for the manufacture of goods and materials while also being environmentally friendly. "Alberta is a prime location for a thriving bioeconomy. We have abundant, renewable agriculture and forest resources, advanced infrastructure and highly qualified personnel," noted Steve Price, CEO of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. "But this is an emerging field into new areas of science. More investigation is required to increase basic knowledge, and to learn how to take concepts out of the lab and turn them into new industrial bioproducts and biotechnologies." The ABF Research and Innovation program has a total $4.5 million in available funding. Project funding amounts will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the quality and scope of the project. In addition to funding, AI Bio assists researchers and companies with advice and connections. Researchers, companies or industry groups based in Alberta, and researchers conducting projects that benefit Alberta, are invited to apply by submitting a Letter of Intent. The deadline is Oct. 28, 2015 at 4 p.m. MT. Eligibility requirements and other important details are available here.  
At the scale of an atomic microscope it has become possible to package molecules that, in water, won’t clump up but will disperse evenly. What if that could be done with the active ingredients in weed control products?
Aug. 20, 2013, Guelph, Ont. – A value chain consortium has presented its final report to local corn producers on a business case for sustaining a commercially viable cellulosic sugar plant in southwestern Ontario to support the future production of green chemicals.The objective of the study was to examine the costs associated with the harvest, aggregation and delivery of corn stalks to a commercial plant and to determine the most viable business model to enable producers to capture a greater share of the value chain while offering a commercial facility stable feedstock supply.The study, according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, demonstrated: the region could supply cornstalks and other biomass crops at competitive rates; more than 250,000 tonnes of cornstalks could be aggregated for a cellulosic sugar facility; and a bioprocessing cooperative model where agricultural producers are both feedstock suppliers and co-investors in the processing infrastructure was the most viable structure examined, benefiting everyone in the value chain. The report was prepared by researchers at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus.The consortium was represented by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Grain Farmers of Ontario, AGRIS Co-operative, Ontario AgriFood Technologies, BioIndustrial Innovation Centre, Midori Renewables, BioAmber and LANXESS covering the full value chain from feedstock producers to biochemical plants. Bother federal and provincial officials participated in an advisory capacity.
June 28, 2013, Guelph, Ont. – Ontario cornfields could one day be the source of not only food, feed and fuel but also eco-friendly paints, age-defying super-moisturizers and non-toxic drug treatments — all thanks to tiny particles discovered in a University of Guelph lab, writes AtGuelph. | READ MORE

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