Canada is in a unique position to be a leader in the development of bio-based materials, says an official with the Ford Motor Co.
Debbie Mielewski, the car company’s senior technical lead for materials sustainability, spoke Wednesday at a Canadian BioDesign Conference held at the Lambton College Event Centre.
The conference, which attracted nearly 180 participants from industry and government agencies, was hosted by the college and Sarnia-based Bioindustrial Innovation Canada.
Mielewski’s assessment was echoed at the conference by Murray McLaughlin, an advisor with Bioindustrial Innovation Canada.
“Biomass is a key strength in this country,” he said.
Biomass, which includes materials such as sawdust from the lumber industry and corn stalks from farming, provides renewable feedstock for bio-fuel and bio-chemical companies.
Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, a government-funded agency, has been working, along with others, to attract bio-chemical companies to the Sarnia area.
“Between forestry and agriculture, we have plenty of biomass and we just have to learn how to utilize it,” McLaughlin said during one of the panels at Wednesday’s conference.
“We have a lot of things to learn about accessing it, transporting it and processing it.”
Mielewski said she has been working on use of sustainable materials at Ford for 20 years.
Plastics make up approximately 10 per cent of vehicles today “and that number grows each and every year” creating more opportunities to make use of bio-based and sustainable materials, she said.
Ford began by using soy-based foam in its Mustang cars in 2008 and that use has grown.
“Every single vehicle Ford makes in North America now has soy in the seat cushions, back and a head rests,” she said.
“We’re super proud of that but we continue to push.”
Ford is looking at several difference sources of renewable materials for use in its vehicles.
“It looks a bit like a farm,” Mielewski said of the lab where she works.
There are bails of farm products, as well as chafe from coffee beans, agave fibres left over from tequila production and other bio-materials. Ford is also looking at potential materials made from sources such as algae and carbon dioxide.
“We’re looking all the way out into the future, what alternatives are there . . . and which ones do we think we can bring to reality,” she said.
‘I think this is absolutely our future.”
Comet Biofuels, a company planning to build a refinery in Sarnia to turn corn stalks and wheat straw into dextrose sugar, was one of the companies taking part in the conference.
Founder Andrew Richard said an announcement is expected soon on when construction will begin.
Nearly 130 farmers in the region have signed on to be part of a co-op providing the plant the biomass, as well as have an ownership stake in the operation, he said.
The project Comet has been working on for approximately three years is nearly through the design phase, Richard said.
“We want to make sure we do it right.”
Some of the participants in Wednesday’s conference were expected to remain in Sarnia another day to be part of consultations for an effort to develop a national bio-economy strategy for Canada.
McLaughlin said Canada is the only member of the G20 nations without one.
“In this country, we don’t yet have a national voice around the bio-economy.”