FINDING THE PAYOFF IN AG BIOMASS
BY IAN DOIG • PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBERTA CANOLA PRODUCERS COMMISSION
Joy Agnew admits to having a love–hate relationship with biomass, the organic waste materials produced by farming, agri-food and forestry operations. Agnew is Olds College Centre for Innovation director of applied research and has worked extensively on biomass-related projects. This included assisting in the creation of Alberta’s Bio-Resource Information Management System (BRIMS), an online tool that aids investors and entrepreneurs in locating biomass supplies across the province.
Biomass is now primarily an energy feedstock. Commercial manure-to-biogas operations such as Lethbridge BioGas are well established, but there is also major potential in biomaterials and biochemicals. Initially excited about the sustainability potential of turning waste into renewable fuel, the inherent limitations of the process have tempered Agnew’s enthusiasm.
Unlike fossil fuels, biomass such as straw, wood and manure is spread thin over the nation’s vast landscape. Collecting it involves potentially huge transport costs. Biomass is also bulky and not easily burned, which is the most common method used to convert it into energy. Another limiting factor is natural gas and electricity prices are now low enough that biomass energy sources such cellulosic ethanol aren’t widely viable. Straw and manure are simply more valuable when applied to the soil.
“It’s a nice thing to think we’re turning waste into energy but there is a much larger economic and environmental footprint that isn’t always considered,” said Agnew.
The challenging logistics have produced a lack of political will to move biomass utilization forward.
Despite this, she believes biomass holds economic opportunity as well as land and environmental stewardship benefits for agriculture.
“There just needs to be support for the research and development to get it to where it’s economical and the environmental footprint is minimized,” she said. “I think it will get there eventually.”
Agnew especially sees potential profit in the extraction of high-value compounds that include pectin and resins from crop residue such as
A tool to support this, the BRIMS web portal uses graphic information system, or GIS technology, to map the location of biomass sources and helps determine associated costs to supply production facilities. This includes evaluation of road and rail links to calculate transport costs.
“It’s extremely valuable for promoting growth in that area. Entrepreneurs that require utilization of biomass have no idea what the costs to procure it are,” she said.
Alberta Innovates collaborated with Silvacom to develop BRIMS and with Alberta Economic Development to launch the Alberta Bio Future program in September 2015. The latter initiative provided approximately $20 million in funding for more than 80 biomass research projects that will be completed by December 2020. Projects range from early stage research to product development and commercialization. These include the use of off-spec canola oil and used frying oil to produce polyols for bioplastics, deriving cellulose nanocrystals and lignin from forest-industry waste as well as obtaining various fibres from hemp straw.
“There is lots going on in the biomass space and it continues to build and develop,” said Christine Murray, Alberta Innovates director of agricultural
Like Agnew, she suggests its economic opportunities remain on the horizon. Market demand and production cost are now lining up in the extraction of higher-value products from biomass, she explained.
As well, public policy calling for the use of renewable fuel can spur production of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel as it has in the U.S. In this area, Alberta Innovates is now participating in a renewable natural gas pilot project. As well, underpinning the drive for biomass products, consumer demand is growing, but comes with the expectation of high quality and competitive pricing. As these factors align, opportunities for farmers may grow.