Alberta’s government has set forth a bold vision to combat climate change. It has also taken concrete steps to diversify the province’s economy with the creation of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade and the Premier’s Advisory Committee on the Economy.
These initiatives create an extraordinary opportunity for Alberta and Canada to take a leadership role in the development of the emerging global bioindustry.
Bioindustry develops ways to effectively use abundant, low-value biomass to create high-value chemicals, fuels and materials. For instance, animal fat, wood chips, low grade canola oil, and even garbage can be converted into an array of value-added products including biofuels, specialty chemicals for use in foods and cosmetics, lubricants, plastics, coatings, spray foam insulations and other products.
Despite its vast potential, the market for bio-based products remains largely untapped in Alberta and Canada. Many do not fully realize the potential impact of the bioindustry. Simply put, it has the economic potential to one day rival the oil and gas sector by aligning and transforming the agricultural, forestry, chemical, biotechnological and energy sectors.
Admittedly, growing bioindustry to critical mass is no easy feat. Many early bioindustrial technology companies failed by either relying too heavily on government subsidies and/or focusing too much on being “green” rather than competing with their petroleum-derived counterparts on price and performance. Fortunately, the big multinational players in the bioindustry including BASF, DuPont and others, have positioned their entries into this space with a wiser strategic and commercial approach. Biomass conversion technologies have also evolved to accommodate different types of feedstocks for making a wider spectrum of profitable products.
Here in Alberta, the bioindustry is at a critical “show me” stage. All eyes are on the Edmonton-Enerkem partnership, which is the world’s first commercial biorefinery that uses garbage to produce methanol and ethanol. Tapping into a potential multibillion dollar market, the company’s proprietary technology is a bio-based alternative to incineration and landfilling.
Other notable Alberta-based initiatives include forestry company West Fraser’s attempt to create new products from lignin, which is traditionally burned as a low-value fuel to generate electricity. Forge Hydrocarbons, a University of Alberta spinoff company from my Faculty, is commercializing a new technology that converts rendered fats, crop seed oil and even restaurant grease into renewable hydrocarbon gasoline and diesel fuels, as well as high-value chemicals. This technology is notable for its ability to produce biodiesel and different types of fuels that are interchangeable with current petroleum products, heralding a new generation of renewable “drop-in” fuels.
Around the globe, major companies are exploring creative bioindustrial applications. For instance, Lego recently announced it will invest $150 million over the next 15 years to develop a new sustainable material and move away from petroleum-based plastic pieces. UPS recently announced that it will use up to 46 million gallons of renewable fuels over the next three years, a 15-fold increase over its previous efforts. DuPont has made a commitment to produce more than 50 per cent of its plastics from renewable sources within 15 years.
With its abundant biomass from agriculture and forestry, heavy industrial base, well-developed infrastructure, distribution networks, research and technology capacity, water, electricity and an educated workforce, Alberta is well-placed to seize the opportunity to build a vibrant, efficient, forward-looking bioindustrial sector.
The timing couldn’t be more propitious. With climate change at the forefront of political discourse around the world, the Alberta government would be well advised, while attending the global climate conference in Paris, to showcase its commitment to the bioeconomy.
Economic diversification will take political leadership and a commitment to change culturally and strategically. The opportunity is ripe for Alberta to build on its existing hydrocarbon energy sector and grow an emerging bioindustrial sector that creates new, renewable technologies and products from biomass. Not only would it contribute to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, it would go a long way in securing Alberta’s long-term, post-oil, economic prosperity.