THE BIOREFINING CONVERSIONS NETWORK
University-based research network forms a vital link with ACR and offers leading-edge pathways to optimizing value in Alberta’s resource industry
In mid-2012, Alberta Chamber of Resources Executive Director Brad Anderson was invited to chair the Strategic Advisory Board of the Biorefining Conversions Network, a University of Alberta-based group supporting research and development related to biorefining and biomass conversion technologies. With already heavy workloads gobbling up the schedule and competing demands presenting a host of other, perhaps more readily obvious business-related choices, it probably wouldn’t have been unreasonable to politely turn the invitation aside. But, digging a little deeper, it soon became clear that the attributes and advantages of participation were huge.
“The more I looked at what the BCN did and at the caliber of the people involved, the more everything seemed to fall into place with what we do at the ACR,” Brad says. “The synergies were really amazing: it’s all about fostering and applying innovation in support of the orderly and responsible development of Alberta’s resources, capturing the highest value from those resources, all about the discovery and sharing of best practices.”
And, in assessing the fit, it helped that the BCN had posted a pretty solid track record of performance over the previous three years. The network was officially launched in April 2009 with an investment of $3 million from the predecessor organization of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. As the work ensued, that initial stake was used to leverage additional funds and attract new projects into the network; three years later the total value of funds was roughly C$6.7 million and today runs close to $10 million.
BCN’s main goal is helping to catalyze the development of a bioindustrial sector in Alberta through a number of targeted outcomes that include:
- the development of patentable, commercially viable, novel biomass conversion technologies;
- technology transfer;
- training of highly qualified personnel.
Dr. David Bressler, BCN Executive Director, and Professor, Agriculture, Food & Nutritional Science, U. of A., can very approachably frame the substance of what the network does in user-friendly terms: “We’re trying to create a mechanism to do science in a different way,” he says. “And, often acting as if we were a company’s research arm, we’re working with industry stakeholders across the board from the forestry, energy, chemical, and agricultural sectors to identify ways to diversify product bases through research.” Put as plainly as possible, the BCN projects that have made great strides toward commercialization over the years include:
- Lipids-to-Hydrocarbon: The refined patented technology converts lipid based products such as animal fats, vegetable oils and other industrial by-products (e.g. tall oil) to valuable hydrocarbons such as solvents, natural gas, jet fuel, diesel and lubricating oil fractions without the need for co-reagents, hydrogen, or catalysts.
- Production of Dimethyl Ether from Biomass: An improved method for catalytic conversion of biomass based methanol to dimethyl ether, a potential fuel and important chemical intermediate.
- Production of Bio-Polyols and Chemical Intermediates from Lipids: This ongoing program focuses on developing clean, green technologies for the conversion of Alberta-based plant oils into renewable materials and chemicals such as resins, adhesives, and aldehydes.
- Government-Forestry Industry Linkages: The BCN established working partnerships with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and forest industry stakeholders (e.g. Weyerhaeuser, Miller Western, West Fraser, Alberta Newsprint) to identify opportunities to convert underutilized forest and pulp and paper byproduct streams to value-added bioproducts, and linked with researchers across Alberta delivering teams around industry needs.
Dr. Bressler—who also sits on the scientific advisory board of a $350-million US-based venture capital fund—emphasizes the unique structure of the network as facilitating particularly responsive, flexible, and dynamic partnerships—relationships that identify or translate research needs, and enable the building of one-of-a-kind academic teams around what industry has identified as its priorities—an unusual way to do things within the academic system. The recently-formed ACR connection throws a two-way lifeline, one end instilling a more broadly-based and improved awareness in the BCN of the needs of the industry, the other linking ACR members to a research network that rather than selling pre-hatched ideas is, instead, focused on building trust relationships between the research community and industry. “You need all the different disciplines academia has to provide in order to support the industry,” Dr. Bressler says. “So instead of trying to make every academic an applied researcher, it’s good to have the network to handle the translation.”
The BCN actively seeks out academic collaborators and industry partners who share a common interest in shaping the future of bioindustrial technologies. For more information visit www.bcn.ualberta.ca