Green chemistry opening new markets

ADVANCES MEAN MORE DEMAND FOR GRAINS AND OILSEEDS

scientists are imagining a future with more agriculture in it. While some of these green chemists have already landed here in Ontario, many others are still out there and ready to bring their own futuristic technologies to life.

Green chemistry is a growing branch of the manufacturing industry that is dedicated to creating more environmentally friendly processes. A popular example of their work is ethanol but the impact these researchers have had goes much deeper into agriculture than that. Since one of the main philosophies of these scientists is to work more renewable resources into consumable products, they are always working directly with raw crop materials or indirectly on natural crop inputs or environmental reclamation technologies. Murray McLaughlin is the CEO of the Sustainable Chemistry Alliance and the Executive Director of the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre. He says that as governments start weaning ethanol companies off their subsidies, farmers should expect to see some innovative changes.

“Most farmers probably don’t know a lot about green chemistry and will think of biofuels,” says McLaughlin. “Biofuels are important, but they’re at the low end of the value chain.”

McLaughlin offers the petroleum industry to demonstrate the opportunities available beyond biofuels. He says it’s not uncommon for petrol companies to direct 75 percent of raw materials into fuel production. However, fuel production often only accounts for 25 percent of generated income. The rest of their income is generated by higher end products, such as succinic acid. McLaughlin says that these products are far more efficient income earners and a major target for green chemists.

“We’ll always produce biofuels,” McLaughlin says, “but there are better margins than what’s available in biofuels alone.”

green chemistry invades ontario
Succinic acid is a specialty chemical that is used to make a range of products including automotive parts, coffee cup lids, disposable cutlery, construction materials, spandex, shoe soles and cosmetics. Traditionally this acid is made with petroleum, but a new company coming to Sarnia in 2013, called BioAmber, makes the acid using agricultural feedstocks. By substituting corn into their process, BioAmber has been able to design a product that is not only more environmentally friendly but critically costs less than petro-based acids. In some applications, it even performs better than its conventional competitors. Though the company is still small, the numerous awards they’ve received for this product is quickly turning them into an industry leader.

“Our success demonstrates that open innovation is not just for large companies and that renewable chemistry has matured to the point of being a real option for the chemical industry,” says Jean-Francois Huc, CEO of BioAmber.

The success of BioAmber’s product builds on some of the key basic principles of the green chemistry philosophy. Dr. Hamdy Khalil is the Global Director of Research and Development for The Woodbridge Group, a company that’s been producing soy-based foam for auto parts since 2007. Khalil says the most important part of the green chemistry objective is to produce equal or higher quality products using more environmental processes.

“Everyone wants green but no one is prepared to pay for it,” says Dr. Khalil, “It’s a door opener. However, the technology is here to stay, and it is the future regardless of apparent hurdles.”

Woodbridge’s product, BioFoam, is used in automobile interiors, such as seat cushions, head rests and sunshades.  Dr. Kahlil says in order to ensure the success of their product they had to address the “10 commandments” of the auto industry. This meant the product had to be greener, cleaner, thinner, lighter, stronger, acoustical, recyclable, comfortable, economical, has no carbon footprint, and can be produced globally. Dr. Kahlil says global production becomes more challenging where soybeans are less readily available and Asia-Pacific companies particularly resist the use of soybeans in car parts.

“The battle we fight with auto companies is the food versus fuel debate,” says Dr. Khalil.

In these parts of the world, Woodbridge has opted to replace soy oil with more readily available palm or castor oil. Similarly, BioAmber has designed their process to be flexible as well and can shift the production line to accommodate whichever feedstocks are most readily available.  Their long-term goal is to bring lingo-cellulosic technology to the market so they can eventually avoid potential food ingredients completely. Murray McLaughlin says that this is an objective many companies are aiming for.

“There’s a lot of work being done on the cellulosic side to make use of corn stalks, wheat straw and alternative crops,” says McLaughlin. “We’ll probably start seeing more of that in five years, but there’s still a lot of research needed.”

moving companies in
McLaughlin says there are a number of reasons why BioAmber decided to build here and why others will follow their lead.

There’s considerable value in the combination of chemical infrastructure, skilled labor, educational facilities, competitive transportation costs and proximity to agricultural land in places like Sarnia across Ontario. McLaughlin says support from the Ontario Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the Canadian Sustainable Chemistry Alliance and other farm community groups were significant benefits considered by the company. He says one of the greatest challenges these companies face is building their first plant since they can’t prove that their technology is profitable until they’re up and running. McLaughlin says that if farmers want to see more of these facilities developed here in the future, maintaining this support will be a huge advantage in attracting these new technologies.

“I think if we can get this well established in the province, it could create more demand for crops and hopefully help to stabilize prices,” says McLaughlin. •