By Carolyn King
An Alberta-developed process that turns canola oil into plastic is moving closer to commercialization.
Interest in plastics made from agricultural crops is growing, driven by factors like rising petroleum prices, issues around access to fossil fuel supplies and consumer demand for environmentally friendly products. A multi-agency effort hopes to tap into this interest by converting an innovative concept – plastic made from canola oil – into a commercial success.
“My hope is that we will see a fully vertically integrated industry around canola-based plastics in Alberta and western Canada, where we would grow the canola, we would process it, we would produce the tertiary materials and then we would ship them, as opposed to shipping our produce outside the boundaries of the province. It is absolutely important that we value-add at home and retain much of that value within our own province,” says Dr. Suresh Narine. He is an associate professor and the director of the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program (ALUP) at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Narine leads the research team that has developed a patented process to convert canola oil into monomers, which are the building blocks for making plastics. This canola plastic research is just one component of the ALUP.
“The ALUP brings together the largest team of lipid (fat) utilization scientists in the world to focus on expanding the economic potential of our canola and flaxseed acreage in western Canada,” says Narine. The scientists are investigating non-traditional uses of crop and animal lipids, such as making cosmetic products, foods with zero trans fats and replacements for a wide range of materials usually made from petrochemicals, like lubricants and plastics.
Launched in 2005, the ALUP has received about $12 million over five years from agencies including Bunge Milling, Alberta Agricultural Research Institute, Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, Alberta Agriculture and Food, National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Institute for Food and Agricultural Science Alberta, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the University of Alberta.
“The ALUP is evolving as a centre of excellence in lipid research and development,” says Ed Phillipchuk of Alberta Agriculture and Food’s Bio-Industrial Development Branch. “Our primary objective is to take the scientific ideas to the product stage and the product stage to commercialization.” The canola-into-plastics research is the ALUP’s first venture into commercializing one of its scientific successes.
The Alberta Bioplastics Network (ABN) was created specifically to shepherd the canola plastic technology through to commercialization. This multi-agency network includes the University of Alberta, Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC), Alberta Agriculture and Food (AAF), Alberta Research Council, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Economic Development and Environment Canada.
“Innovation doesn’t just happen because someone has a good idea. The ABN was created to get all of the parts of the value chain working together to achieve the end result,” says Ward Toma, ACPC’s general manager. To achieve this, the ABN has four teams: science; technology scale-up; marketing and investment analysis; and policy, regulations and environmental impacts.
“We have really hit upon a group of people who have stayed with us through the meandering fortunes of developing a technology like this,” notes Narine, who is also director of the ABN. He credits the progress made so far to the articulate, enthusiastic people involved in the ABN who are championing the technology.
The technology is now at the pilot plant stage. AAF is leading this component, with $1 million from each of the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund and the federal Agricultural Policy Framework. The pilot plant is located at Agri-Food Discovery Place in Edmonton and was expected to start operating this fall.
The pilot plant will be scaling up the laboratory process to provide essential technical information for the eventual commercial production of the monomers. In addition, the pilot plant will be able to use the monomers to produce canola plastic prototypes of items like plastic bottles, films, packaging, or components for automobiles.
“For example, if we are targetting the automotive industry, we need to able to make prototypes of components like bumpers or dashboards for companies that want to evaluate our material for their needs.
So the pilot plant will enable us to investigate potential markets for the monomers,” explains Narine. “It’s important that, once our industrial partner invests in a commercial facility to produce the monomers, it will be able to successfully sell the monomers.”
For the next steps, Phillipchuk says, “We envisage that once we execute the monomer demonstration through our pilot plant, we’ll scale it up possibly one additional size and then from there we will go into a commercial operation with a potential investor such as Bunge Milling. We see this happening possibly within the next two to three years.” Bunge Milling, one of the ALUP partners, is an international agribusiness company and the world’s largest oilseed processor. It already has a canola crushing facility near Edmonton.
Transportation costs could be saved by locating the monomer processing facility near an existing canola crushing facility in the middle of a good canola-producing region in Alberta. And an Alberta location could offer another advantage: “In Alberta we have a huge petrochemical-based plastics industry that is keenly interested in this. So we have a good tie-in with car manufacturers and suppliers of petrochemical-based products that could use their existing business links to incorporate bio-based plastics into their systems,” says Toma.
How might a new commercial monomer facility affect canola production? “It could possibly use from five to eight percent of the canola production of Alberta. So it’s not a large amount, but it is a beginning,” says Phillipchuk. That simple beginning could lead to much bigger opportunities in the years ahead.
“Globally, about 99 percent of plastics are manufactured from petroleum resources, and about one percent or less is made from renewable feedstocks such as oils, starches and other agricultural commodities.
Some of our market research suggests that the global per capita consumption of plastics will probably increase from about 25kg per person to about 40kg per person in the next three years. That offers a great opportunity for bioplastics to increase their market share beyond one percent to possibly between two and five percent in the next five to seven years,” explains Phillipchuk.
He adds, “The bioplastic initiative is not necessarily to replace or displace petroleum plastics. Our objective is to create an additional plastic material for commercial applications.”
Phillipchuk says many international companies are already using or interested in using bioplastics, such as Cargill, Dupont, Toyota, Ford and John Deere. “The applications are very diverse, including biomedical equipment, packaging, carpeting, clothing and automotive industries. The trend is that wherever a petro-plastic has an application, there may be a market opportunity for bioplastics.”
How large a part will prairie canola play in meeting the bioplastic demand? Toma says, “From the farmers’ standpoint, the main challenge is making sure that we can produce the crop to fulfill the increased demand. Increased demand brings increased pricing, which we’re seeing right now. Increased pricing means farmers are making more money for growing the crop, so they will grow more of the crop. And that brings challenges at the production level around diseases and insects, and all these things that need to be addressed.”
Narine, Toma and Phillipchuk all emphasize that the market success of canola plastics will depend on cost and functionality – canola plastics must be cost competitive with petroleum plastics and other bioplastics – and they must work as well as or better than other plastics.
Phillipchuk says, “Currently, bioplastics tend to be about three to five times more expensive than petroleum plastics. But that price differential is closing. Seven years ago, bioplastics were probably 20 to possibly 100 times more expensive.” Factors like improved bioplastic technologies, higher oil prices and better economies of scale in bioplastic production are closing the price gap.
Narine is optimistic that the ALUP’s canola plastic process will be competitive. “I think we are price competitive with, say, polyethylene production or polyurethanes from petroleum. And we believe that the quality and the functionality of canola plastics are comparable with petroleum-based products. We also believe that our monomers can be used in the existing factories of the receptor industries without their retooling and changing their processes, so they won’t require new capitalization to use our monomers.”
Narine concludes, “I truly think we are poised to realize some commercial benefits from this innovation. And there is a whole variety of technologies and breakthroughs and ideas that are in the pipeline, not only from our group but from many of my colleagues across Alberta, at the Olds College Centre for Innovation, Lethbridge, the University of Calgary, the Alberta Research Council and the University of Alberta. If we are able to get this one through to commercialization, I think it would serve as a good model and would open the doors for many of these other processes that are at various stages of development.”
Canola plastic positives
Scientist Suresh Narine outlines some of the potential benefits of plastic from canola:
At present, almost all plastics made in the world originate from petroleum. Canola is one option for renewable sources of plastics.
Using canola to produce plastic could provide a new market demand for canola and higher prices, benefiting canola growers.
Canola plastics and other bioplastics are more biodegradable than petroleum-based plastics, so bioplastics could reduce the amount of plastic waste going to landfills. The canola plastic has to be treated with a specific formulation to biodegrade.
From a life cycle perspective, the amount of energy that goes into making the canola plastic is significantly less than goes into making traditional petrochemical plastics. So the canola process has lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on the environment. n