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AgSci RESEARCH CLUSTER
NEWSLETTER ARTICLES

A brief summary here from Michael re: the framework for the projects themselves, the purpose of the newsletter, etc.

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Bressler Labs

There is a growing urgency from the Federal and Provincial governments of Canada for organizations to develop innovative technologies that can produce valuable products from agricultural materials while reducing impacts on climate change. 

The Bressler Lab, operating out of the University of Alberta, is cracking the code on how to bring this to fruition.

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DMT Bioproducts

DMT Bioproducts (DMT) strives to refine locally grown agriculture crops into bio-based products with commercial value. Through this project, their goal has been to develop high efficiency biorefining processes that would enable commercially viable mass production of several biochemicals and co-products from the perennial grass miscanthus.

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EcoPoxy

Epoxies are one of the most widely used thermoset resin systems because of their versatility and performance characteristics. With a wide range of uses but a narrow focus on ways to supply it more sustainably, EcoPoxy saw an opportunity for a more carbon-friendly formulation through the creation of a bio-based epoxy resin that utilizes product previously destined for the landfill.

BRESSLER LABS
Diversifying Product Options, Reducing Carbon Creation and Raising Economic Value

There is a growing urgency from the Federal and Provincial governments of Canada for organizations to develop innovative technologies that can produce valuable products from agricultural materials while reducing impacts on climate change.

The Bressler Lab, operating out of the University of Alberta, is cracking the code on how to bring this to fruition, as they have developed a two-stage thermal conversion technology that converts lipids (oils and fats) from a variety of sources, including by-product streams from the agricultural sector, to drop-in fuels and solvents without the use of catalysts and hydrogen.

This lipid-to-hydrocarbon (LTH) technology has been licensed to Forge Hydrocarbons, a University of Alberta spin-off company, as part of the project’s exploration of ways to create value added co-product opportunities and ensure quality of renewable fuels generated from agricultural biomass through the LTH approach.

Because the LTH process can operate with low grade lipids and lower purity materials as feedstock, there is a direct opportunity for off-grade canola, spent restaurant greases, brown and yellow greases, and tallow to be utilized.  The technology essentially creates acids from the input material that is then turned into hydrocarbons that are further separated into gasoline and diesel streams.  These streams create an opportunity for agricultural carbon reduction without fundamentally changing the agricultural production system or the end use fuel systems and sectors they drive. Together, these two properties exemplify the important role that Canadian agricultural inputs play in the development of renewable fuels with 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than conventional fossil fuel – supporting the decarbonization of a multitude of value chain processes.

A multitude of beneficiaries along the value chain will also be an outcome of this project as producers, processors and renderers will see a growth in sustainable market opportunities for oil and fat products. Not to mention, the low carbon co-product specialty chemical opportunities will benefit the sector at large through the application and usage of more sustainable solvents and lubricants that are currently under development.

Since joining the cluster to continue the development of this technology, Forge has experienced significant growth along their commercialization path through their ability to refine the quality of their primary product while diversifying the opportunities for co-products. More specifically, the production of low carbon fuels, like aviation fuels, and associated low carbon co-products, such as solvents, are in the evolutionary phase of being de-risked through the support of the cluster and associated research. To date, the success of this project has resulted in the University of Alberta securing a $7.2M sustainable aviation initiative, an equity investment from Shell Ventures, and a follow-on contribution from Valent Low-Carbon Technologies in Forge which will support the build-out of a first-of-its-kind $30 million commercial-scale, biofuel production plant in Sombra, Ontario.

Furthermore, this project has supported capacity building in Canada’s agricultural research sector while also growing and training highly qualified people (HQPs) for employment in Canada’s nascent but growing sustainable fuels sector. Providing valuable industry relevant research and development experience, the students working on this project in the University of Alberta’s labs are exposed to real-world opportunities and the industry players taking advantage of them.  

As mentioned from the start, projects like this are increasingly encouraged to deliver outcomes that support Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy. In this case, a third party evaluated assessment of the LTH technology, at commercial scale (prior to the cluster supported research), is estimated to be a 80-90% reduction in carbon over existing fossil fuels. But it’s not just great for the environment, it’s great for the economy. The capacity of the new Sombra production plant will be 7.5 million gallons of renewable fuels annually. The project will create approximately 150 construction and engineering jobs during the build phase and more than 45 full-time jobs for the commercial operation of the facility, transforming the economy of Sarnia-Lambton.

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DMT BIOPRODUCTS
 

DMT Bioproducts (DMT) strives to refine locally grown agriculture crops into bio-based products with commercial value. Through this project, their goal has been to develop high efficiency biorefining processes that would enable commercially viable mass production of several biochemicals and co-products from the perennial grass miscanthus.

The project initially focused on process development for the biochemical “furfural”, a biochemical that has gained renewed attention as a platform chemical for the production of plastics, pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, adhesives, and flavor enhancers.

Current industrial furfural production comes from the use of corn residues and is mostly produced in China. Miscanthus, as a feedstock, can provide up to 5 times the biomass per acre as corn. If the yield can be increased from the current industrial standards of 10% (based on dry biomass weight), this will increase the competitiveness of furfural production in Canada.

The supply chain demands of DMT’s project have relied heavily on the Canadian agricultural sector, most notably the Ontario Biomass Producers Co-operatives (OBPC), to establish the biomass specifications and supply chain logistics required for future development of a biomass supply chain for a commercial scale biorefinery.

As DMT continues to scale up their processes commercially, they will require 10,000 MT of biomass annually. This requirement would provide significant alternate revenue streams for Canadian biomass producers looking to diversify.  

Products coming out of the pilot scale process are currently being tested in collaboration with the world’s largest global distributor of platform chemicals. As the global demand for platform chemicals continues to rise, the demand for bio-based materials increases. The current supply chain is highly constrained by material price increases and logistics challenges, further supporting the business case and partnership opportunities for DMT.

Through the support of the AgSci research cluster funding, DMT has been able to make a significant, positive impact on their technology development, and acquisition of scientific and technical staff to help accelerate the development of their technology process. Additionally, the funding has assisted with the build-out of their research laboratory and pilot scale plant in Port Burwell, Ontario – a critical component to increasing their technology readiness level from TRL 2 to TRL 5. Lastly, the strategic business resources made available to DMT through Bioindustrial Innovation Canada’s (BIC) CommSci support program have helped DMT better understand the market opportunities related to other secondary chemicals produced with the same technology –  helping DMT address challenges related to new market development, while also supporting access to academic and applied research resources.

To further their success beyond the project end date, DMT plans to perform a detailed FEED study to develop a 1,000 MT capacity commercial scale biorefinery to manufacture the platform chemicals developed through this research project. 

When considering the environmental impacts of this project, miscanthus (MxG) is a net carbon negative feedstock with the potential to capture net 0.64 tonnes of carbon (2.35 tonnes CO2e) per/year, per/hectare.  According to the factsheet of Ontario Federation of Agriculture on miscanthus and switchgrass (SG), the biomass carbon footprint is 0.24 kg CO2eq/kg dry matter for SG and 0.05 kg CO2eq/kg dry matter for MxG.  Cultivation and transformation of these biomass feedstocks to value-added products by integrating the circular economy is beneficial to the environment as well as the local agriculture economy.  Our farmers are already great stewards of the land, and by building out a strong domestic biomass-based industry with a crop like miscanthus, we help protect them from economic uncertainty. Diversifying their markets means better business opportunities for them.

As miscanthus use and demands grow, the need for more highly qualified personnel in the biochemical sector will also expand, as will the revenue streams for supply chain stakeholders in the biochemical industry. Lastly, the biorefining technology validated through this project may be adopted to other agricultural regions in Canada, heightening the environmental and economic impact of the work being done by DMT’s project.

ECOPOXY
The applications and functionality of traditional epoxies… but make it sustainable

It’s well known that epoxy resins are a common type of thermosetting resin system, consisting of a resin and hardener which are mixed at a defined ratio before curing. The result is a solid plastic material, the properties of which can be tailored based on the chemistries of the resin and hardener. Due to the wide range of achievable properties, epoxies can be found in both consumer and industrial settings. This variety of applications ranges from artwork, jewelry, woodworking, high-performance composites, electronics to sealants, and more.

Epoxies are one of the most widely used thermoset resin systems because of their versatility and performance characteristics. With a wide range of uses but a narrow focus on ways to supply it more sustainably, EcoPoxy saw an opportunity for a more carbon-friendly formulation through the creation of a bio-based epoxy resin that utilizes products previously destined for the landfill.

EcoPoxy currently produces bio-based epoxy resins using a combination of non-local annually renewable biomaterial components and petroleum-based components. It is EcoPoxy’s vision to replace these components with annually renewable biomaterials grown and harvested in Canada, resulting in an epoxy that is environmentally friendly and does not take resources out of the global food supply. To that end, EcoPoxy has been focusing on the use of soybean oil, which is a by-product of the production of soybean meal for animal feed in the local market.

Historically, the successful incorporation of soybean oil-based resin constituents into epoxy resin systems has been limited. Difficulties linked to the chemistry associated with soybean oil require unique approaches in order to produce a fruitful outcome. Through this project, EcoPoxy’s R&D team set out to investigate opportunities to circumvent these peculiarities and increase the bio-content of their epoxy resin systems while also developing methods to derive epoxy resin components from soybean oil.

With the help of the Canadian agricultural sector, EcoPoxy is experiencing success in their endeavour, while also facilitating opportunities for Canadian oil-seed crop producers and processors to diversify their products and ultimately generate more income. Though this diversification and opportunity to grow income is attractive, it is not met without its hurdles.

There is currently a need for further development of the supply chain before this growth can happen. The more immediate role for the agricultural sector is to lobby the government on developing regulations and incentives that require or reward annually renewable bio-content  in consumer and light industrial coating, casting, and composite resin products. The adoption of bio-based solutions needs both push on the part of the Canadian government and pull from Canadian consumers and manufacturers.

Although there are challenges yet to be overcome, this project has had no shortage of successes. First off, EcoPoxy hosted a successful in-plant demonstration of their BioPoxy 35S, a formulation that was developed using commercially available epoxidized soybean oil in combination with more traditional epoxy raw materials. The theoretical bio-based carbon content of the mixed system is 48%, which is a significant increase in bio-content over most commercially available bio-based epoxy systems meant for use in composite materials. 

Secondly, EcoPoxy’s team successfully developed a biomaterials pathways database to consolidate the information discovered through both research and experimentation. This information is an important reference to support the synthesis of new materials by EcoPoxy’s chemistry team and is organized in a way that makes complex data accessible, useful, and interactive.  The database is also helping the team identify knowledge gaps that researchers have not yet explored and develop novel bio-based materials that are suitable for formulating epoxy resins.

Lastly, EcoPoxy was able to identify an innovative reactive diluent that can be produced using soybean oil as a precursor. Several resin formulations have been developed using this reactive diluent, many with the potential to create novel market-ready products. Most importantly, the diluent has been successfully used to develop an updated formulation for EcoPoxy’s SnowWhite product that was previously using petroleum-based raw materials.

EcoPoxy is working to scale back the use of petroleum-based materials in favour of annually renewable raw materials, a win for both the company’s and Canada’s GHG emissions reduction strategies.

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