Not-for-profit organization BioFuelNet Canada has received up to $5.3 million to support the development of biomass supply chains and technologies.
The funding was provided under the AgriScience Program – Clusters Component, part of the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership. The cluster has proposed research activities under three themes: biomass production, biomass feedstock supply chains and biomass utilization.
The research activities include growth of biomass crops on marginal lands, the development of microbial biostimulants and various conversion technologies.
“We've been working on things that will help make biomass produce more (biofuel) without cutting into food production and, at the same time, allow for it to be moved around efficiently . . . to be processed or utilized in whatever way it's going to be utilized,” Donald Smith, a McGill University professor and BioFuelNet Canada's CEO, told SustainableBiz.
BioFuelNet Canada, headquartered at McGill in Montreal, began in 2012 via a Networks of Centres of Excellence grant. Its team includes researchers, agriculturalists, agronomists and chemical engineers.
How BioFuelNet will use the funding
The organization works in five-year clusters, with the first spanning from 2018 to earlier this year. The second cluster began in April and will run until 2028.
Both clusters involve training graduate students, who also work with industrial partners in Canada. Smith estimates the organization has trained close to a thousand students.
The recent funding will be put toward labs across the country focusing on the three themed research activities.
Xiaomin Zhou, the executive director of BioFuelNet Canada, noted there is more of a “climate-change component” in the second cycle.
“There are projects on biomass production. Actually the one I run is on (the) value chain. So this is the whole, getting it from somewhere to somewhere else, making it with a certain amount of initial processing along the way,” Smith explained. “Then there are several on conversion into, on the one hand, biofuels (of) one sort or another and at the same time, often something that feeds back into the agricultural system for biomass production.”
Canada has a natural advantage in biomass and biofuel production due to the amount of surface area dedicated to agriculture, he said. Part of the solution is to boost the resilience of crops to ongoing climate change, but another aspect lies simply in growing more crops.
“So Canada, for instance, it depends on what you include, but it (has) somewhere between 40 and 50 million hectares of reasonably good agricultural land to good agricultural land,” Smith said. “If you can boost the productivity of that by a reasonable amount, you can wind up taking quite a lot of extra CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere.”
BioFuelNet’s future plans
The organization has already recorded biomass lectures it plans to release soon from Canadian experts, aimed at students or anyone hoping to obtain jobs in the field.
Zhou also mentioned planned publications about the research, perhaps in the form of online brochures for the public.
“From my perspective, what I’d really like is to be in a position where we can see methods that we can enhance the production of the biomass and make it stable in the face of climate change challenges, effectively move it to where it needs to be deployed in a useful way and have that all understood . . . at least reasonably well,” Smith said, "and have conveyed that information effectively to policymakers and the public.”
He noted Canada is making “good progress” on biomass and biofuel technologies, but there should be more incentives to allow the agricultural community to maximize production.
No matter the project, the cluster research will involve industrial partners in Canada.
“They also provide guidance, because they have a sense of what the market wants and what the market will accept,” Smith said. “We on the research can get pretty focused on, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’ And then you go talk to the industry guys. They'll say, ‘Yeah, but the growers will never do that.’ ”