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Energy from algae, cars made with flax — innovative bio-based products offer the hope of a greener future. But what do bioproducts mean for Canada? How could they affect our lives, the environment and the economy?
We asked Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice-President of Life Sciences for NRC. Recognized as a visionary thinker in the life sciences sector, Dr. Szumski leads NRC's role in Canada's National Bioproducts Program, a research program delivered by NRC in partnership with Natural Resources Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Question: We see the term "bio" everywhere today — on foods, consumer products and in the media. What does "bio" mean to you?
Answer: To me, "bio" refers to something of biological origin versus a physical or classical chemistry origin. In the context of bioproducts, it refers to material that has an origin from biomass and that can be converted into things like chemicals, building materials or fuel.
Q: Do bioproducts represent a shift in thinking?
A: Well, some of the ideas are as old as civilization itself — the burning of wood for fuel, the straw roofs that you see all over Europe.
But today, the shift is that we're using the very latest in chemistry, genomics and engineering to really understand the conversion of biomass into useful materials.
Did you know?
Biomass is any renewable organic matter, such as trees, crops, aquatic plants and agricultural residues. Historically, biomass was the main source of energy for Canadian homes in the form of wood — a type of biomass.
The other big shift is that the industries that are dependent on materials and fuels are themselves developing clear pathways to a greener future. They're doing this not only to be good citizens, but because there is a very strong business case driving them. For example, the aerospace industry is very concerned about what will happen when carbon trading takes effect, and the impact on the price of their products and services. They are very keen to find alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.
Q: What misconceptions have you encountered about bioproducts?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions is that if it's "bio," it must be good. That has certainly proven not to be the case.
For example, making ethanol from corn turned out to have a larger environmental footprint than using straight gasoline. This has led to concern around the world about the use of agricultural land for non-food purposes — the whole "food or fuel" debate.
Once a country puts policies in place that make it dependent on ethanol from corn, it becomes very difficult to unravel that. In Europe, they introduced aggressive standards for putting biodiesel from palm oil into the fuel supply, leading to deforestation in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. We haven't seen that to the same degree at all in Canada, and I hope that Canada takes a more thoughtful approach to the use of biofuels.
Q: What are the challenges facing the adoption of biotechnologies?
A: The big one that will be interesting to watch is carbon trading. What countries will adopt it first? Will carbon trading drive technology in those countries, or will it make them uncompetitive with other countries that are not introducing carbon taxes? That's a very complex societal and political subject, and it will probably take 10 to 15 years before we start to see real moves in that regard.
Another big challenge is the societal reaction. We've made a couple of missteps along the way, so society will be asking "is this new product really any better?"
So it's critical for us to apply what I call intellectual integrity to our decisions when it comes to bioproducts. We must insist on understanding the full life cycle analysis of the products we make, so that at the end of the day, we know there is a positive environmental footprint as a result of this product.
Q: What does the life cycle analysis consider?
A: It looks at the entire process of creating a product, from beginning to end, and the greenhouse gas emissions that result. For example, we look at the emissions from transporting material to and from the processing centre, and emissions from all the steps involved in manufacturing a product, fuel or chemical.
The important thing to understand is that bio-based products are not zero impact. Compared to fossil fuel, what they represent is a sustainable cycle that happens in a very short time frame.
For example, in the case of biofuel, carbon dioxide is absorbed by a plant, and then the plant is turned into fuel. We burn the fuel, it creates carbon dioxide, which is then absorbed by a plant. At one point you remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and at another point you put it back. There is going to be some inefficiency in that process.
However, it's all leaps and bounds ahead of taking oil out of the ground and putting it back into the atmosphere — that's essentially a one-way street.
Q: Why are bioproducts of particular interest to Canada?
A: In Canada, we are sitting on a gold mine of biomass. We have a lot of good agricultural land; we have forests; we are surrounded by ocean on three sides. Only a handful of countries have access to the biomass that we do.
Where the opportunity lies for Canada is that the value of this biomass will increase as there is greater global uptake of bioproducts. We must make sure that Canada has the technologies, processes and companies in place to convert that biomass into products. That gives us a leg up on many countries around the world. I would see it as a failure if, 15 years from now, we're for the most part exporting our biomass to China, the U.S. and Europe, and they are making products from it.
Q: Where should Canada focus its efforts?
A: In Canada, we have niches of strength that we are developing. When we set up the National Bioproducts Program, we did extensive external consultations. They directed us to focus on areas where Canada has a chance to take a lead. So for example in the area of creating new materials from plant mass, the focus would be on fine chemicals and chemicals that can go into materials.
In the area of fuel, our consultations advised us that biofuels from algae, while higher risk and longer term, would avoid the "food or fuel" debate and also give us a first mover advantage in technology development.
The National Bioproducts Program is just over a year old, and the aerospace industry's interest in making jet fuel from algae has been very intense. That's because they have a strong business driver to find an alternative for kerosene. While passenger vehicles are moving towards electric or electric hybrid, passenger and transport jets will be flying on liquid fuel for a generation or two to come. They don't have an alternative, so there is intense competition globally to find new sources of jet fuel. I think algae is a very promising one.
Q: What role does the National Bioproducts Program play?
A: Our goal in creating the program was to use technology to create linkages between the biomass producers and the end users. For example, we've been successful at connecting the flax growers in the Prairie provinces to the car parts manufacturers in Southern Ontario.
That's a very interesting combination, and I'm pleased that at NRC we are able to take a leadership role in bringing the two together. Flax growers by themselves don't really have the credibility to go to a car part manufacturer, nor would they naturally. Car part manufacturers don't know where to begin in terms of looking at that type of material. Working with our partners, we can make the link. We have scientists who have huge credibility with the crop producers.
And we also have the engineers who have tremendous credibility with the automotive sector. We can, under this organization, put them together and create a research thread that links the two. That's the secret to getting our biomass converted into value-added products for Canada. And that, I believe, represents a tremendous prosperity generating opportunity for us.
Q: How could our lives change over the next 10 or 20 years as a result of biotechnology?
A: We're going to see more bioproducts in everything from our houses to the clothing we wear to our cars to the fuel that we put into our airplanes. It touches almost everything.
Biotechnology will also have some impact on mitigating the effects of climate change and will help to generate prosperity for Canadians. For example, it will help us to create or retain jobs, and to continue to be a major aerospace and automotive parts supplier for the world.
Q: As our understanding of biological processes becomes even more refined, what scientific advancements could be coming in the longer term?
A: In the more distant future, we will be able to emulate natural processes that work at exquisite levels of efficiency. For example, processes in which one photon moves one electron and there is almost no loss of energy whatsoever. Things that you would never dream of in a million years from an engineering perspective.
Once we start to harness and capture the capability of biology at that level, then the possibilities for creating energy, hydrogen and the like are remarkable. But that's a long term scientific dream.
Q: If that dream came true, how might we apply that knowledge?
A: We could create a membrane that, when exposed to sunlight, blows off hydrogen with no heat generated or needed. It would provide a source of clean hydrogen to power fuel cells. This is definitely getting into the realm of dreaming. But imagine if we could do something like that — it would be remarkable.