Group exploring technologies to commercial farm biomass to sugar process
Government and private-sector funding is expected to move ahead proposal that could lead to the building of a commercial plant in Sarnia-Lambton to convert cornstalks and wheat stalks into sugar for use in the chemical industry.
Murray McLaughlin, executive director of Sarnia-based Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, said approximately $300,000 from the federal government’s Growing Forward 2 initiative, along with approximately $200,000 from other partners, will be used in the coming year to take a closer look at the technology and how to move it to commercial use.
The objective is to see a commercial plant developed by 2018.
Other partners in the project include the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Cellulosic Sugar Produces Cooperative, BioAmber Inc., the Integrated Grain Producers Co-operative Inc., Jungbunzlauer Canada Inc., and Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.
This stage of the project is expected to take a year to complete.
"Basically, we're going to evaluate a number of processes that are being developed to process biomass corn stover and wheat straw into sugars, with the whole premise of trying to determine what might be the best technology for our region," McLaughlin said.
"By the end of this study we hope to be in a position where we can identify two or three technologies that would have the ability to produce sugars at the quality that we need."
Work is also being done to establish a cooperative that would look at the "early front-end stage" of collecting corn and wheat stalks to supply a plant.
"And then we would want to establish a sugar mill in the region to take that corn stover to sugar," McLaughlin said.
"Once you have sugar, you can convert those sugars to a number of different chemicals."
There will be conversations in the coming months with companies who could use the sugar to create building-block chemicals, much like the new BioAmber plant now under construction in Sarnia.
The sugar can also be used to make ethanol, McLaughlin said.
"The big thing here is can we get sugar from corn stover that will give us the quality and price that we need?"
Getting that sugar from bio-mass, like cornstalks and wheat stalks, "takes us away from the whole food-versus-fuel debates," McLaughlin said.
"Quality and price are critical," he said.
"As long as we can meet those two criteria, and the supply that's needed, we'll have a ready market, I think."
Plans are for an initial biomass-to-sugar plant in Lambton County, at a site that would be determined later in the process, he said.
Initial "early-stage thinking" is that the plant might require a minimum of 250,000 tonnes of corn stover.
"Which would give us about 125,000 tonnes of sugars."
What a plant would cost to build would depend on the technology used, but McLaughlin said a rough estimate could be between $50 million and $100 million.
Even more exciting, McLaughlin said, is what the production of the sugar could lead to.
"Because if you have sugars available for companies, like the BioAmbers, then it allows us to attract other companies of that nature."
A whole range of bio-based chemical companies could be developed out of the Sarnia region, he said.