ARCHIVED - Sustainable Development: From Cleaning Up Messes to Preventing Them

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March 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC scientist taking a sample of the gases produced by anaerobic micro-organisms. This could eventually become a new and novel way of turning waste into usable energy.
NRC scientist taking a sample of the gases produced by anaerobic micro-organisms. This could eventually become a new and novel way of turning waste into usable energy.

There are almost infinite ways that industrial processes can use waste materials, decrease pollution and generate energy instead of burning it. NRC researchers have developed techniques which are preventing environmental damage and using products which otherwise would be waste. By leveraging its expertise, modern biotechnology techniques and infrastructure, NRC is rising to the challenge.

Crossroads Conference

The NRC Biotechnology Research Institute is hosting this year's 11th annual Crossroads Conference entitled 'Industrial Biotechnology and Industrial Sustainability' on March 22nd and 23rd, 2006 in Montréal. This year's Crossroads symposium will discuss ways to lower green house gas emissions, find alternative energy sources and design enzymes to develop more sustainable industrial processes.

The far-reaching, multidisciplinary nature of these projects requires face-to-face time to take stock on progress, assess the most pressing needs and plan for future research. The Crossroads Conference is just such an opportunity.

"The conference will involve truly industrial thinking and planning. We expect about 300 people to attend, mostly from industry. We want an opinion from the practitioners who need scientific support," said Adrien Pilon, Director of NRC-BRI's Environmental Sector.

More information about the Crossroads conference can be found on the Web site at:

There are potentially hundreds of methods to create sustainable industrial processes and consumer products from biological processes and/or waste. The multi-pronged effort at NRC and in university and commercial research labs suggests that Canada's bio-based economy will continue to grow. One of the keys to creating a more sustainable future is for each researcher, company and government agency to collaborate and provide their part of the solution.

"NRC has major capacity because it has over 20 institutes in these areas. Overall, in Canada, all of these technologies in different institutes can make a significant contribution," said Adrien Pilon, Director of NRC-BRI's Environmental Sector. "NRC can be a major player in helping to develop Canada's bioeconomy."

In the past, industry focused on containing hazardous materials or, when they escaped into the environment, cleaning them up through costly remediation efforts. Over the past 10 years, however, industry has been re-focusing on preventing the pollution problem rather than just reacting to it.

One project involving four other NRC institutes and Agriculture Canada converts linseed straw into building and automotive materials. Canada produces 25 percent of the world's linseed oil. As a result, about 1.5 million tons of residual straw is spread on the soil or burned per year. The partnership is required since there are several steps in the process to be optimized including breaking down the straw, mixing it with resin and creating plastics with just the right properties for cars and aircraft.

"The transportation industry is looking at incorporating biocompatible material fibres into their materials," said Mr. Pilon. "Replacing the glass fibres in automotive materials with straw-based alternatives would prevent 550,000 tons of CO2 per year entering the atmosphere."

NRC-BRI's biocatalyst program searches for microbial enzymes to replace hazardous chemicals used in pharmaceutical, chemical and other types of manufacturing. One project in partnership with Natural Resources Canada is looking for pectinase enzymes to break down waste hemp fibre. Another enzyme hunt with Concordia University and Genome Quebec is investigating fungus to find a product to decolourize dye.

Scientist working to develop a new energy source from municipal solid waste.
Scientist working to develop a new energy source from municipal solid waste.

NRC-BRI is also working on several ways to generate energy from non-petroleum sources (bioenergy) such as creating ethanol fuel from agricultural waste, digesting municipal solid waste to generate hydrogen gas and making a 'microbial fuel cell' using sewage.

As these examples show, sustainable development projects require industry and research collaborations to obtain raw materials, access technical know-how and implement solutions in real world settings. The NRC-BRI has a long list of agency, university and private sector partners for their sustainable development projects, including many other institutes within the NRC.

Onion culture

"NRC-BRI's Environment Sector's focus is to develop sustainable solutions through industrial biotechnology and environmental technology using genomics, biotechnology, chemistry and engineering," said Mr. Pilon. "Sustainable development industrial processes are all about starting with a waste or residue and giving it value," said Mr. Pilon. "This creates manufacturing capacity and develops regional processing plants which then contribute to the bioeconomy."

"Each institute within its area of expertise can make a contribution to sustainable development. For example, nanotechnology can help in optimizing enzymes to catalyze reactions, developing materials and increasing the optical characteristics of sensors," said Mr. Pilon.

Another reason to collaborate on sustainability projects is to share costs and risks among partners. NRC-BRI has a great deal of infrastructure, expertise and patented methods in this area, which their partners can access through research collaborations.

"The goal of sustainable development is to serve immediate needs without compromising the needs of the future generations," said Mr. Pilon. "Sustainable development addresses three dimensions: the economy, social values and the environment."

Ideally, industrial processes wouldn't exhaust natural resources or cause excessive pollution. Sustainable development research re-designs industrial processes to reach this goal.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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