Transforming corn stover into sugar
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By Jim Algie
London, Ont.-based Comet Biorefining Inc. plans a sugar-from-corn-stover plant in Sarnia’s Industrial Park at Transalta by 2018, CEO Andrew Richard announced recently.
It’s among three current projects in the Sarnia area to convert field crops and residues into bio-based products with a variety of industrial uses to replace petroleum-derived chemicals. All involve potential new markets for agricultural crops and active support from the government-funded Sarnia-based agency, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC).
Comet Biorefining was established in 2009 with lead investment from Sofinnova Partners, a Paris-based venture capital concerned with investments in medical and bio-tech companies. Comet has developed a proprietary patented process to convert “non-food, cellulosic biomass into high quality, cost-competitive, cellulosic glucose,” a statement on the corporate website says.
A biochemical engineer with a 2005 PhD from the University of Western Ontario, Richard could not be contacted directly because he was in transit. In comments relayed through the company’s Belgian public relations firm, however, Richard confirmed Tuesday that Comet and Sarnia-area farmers have begun talks to develop a “long-term and cost-effective supply chain that meets the needs of both the plant and its suppliers.”
The proposed Sarnia plant is to produce as much as 60 million pounds of dextrose sugar from locally-sourced corn stover and wheat straw. Wood chips is another possible source of raw material for the plant, Richard said.
In 2011, the company established a demonstration plant in Rotondella, Italy through a partnership with Italy’s government-run energy research agency, ENEA, to repurpose a biomass conversion facility to run Comet’s glucose process.
The Comet process was among 18 tested by BIC researchers, Executive Director Murray McLaughlin said in an interview, Tuesday.
Through funding from the federal/provincial Agricultural Adaptation Council, BIC studied 18 different technologies for converting corn stover to sugar, McLaughlin said. Comet’s process was among four that raised further interest and appeared to match the objectives of a newly-established, farmers’ group, the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative led by Sarnia-area farmer Dave Park.
Park could not be reached for comment, Tuesday, but a Feb. 19, Sarnia Observer story quotes Park to say he welcomes the announcement which creates a new market for crop residues. Raw material for the plant will likely be supplied by farmers within an hours’ drive of Sarnia, he told The Observer.
McLaughlin, who is a former Saskatchewan deputy minister of agriculture and former CEO of the Guelph-based, agricultural venture fund Foragen, said new uses for corn stover “will add more value back to the farm” and add “more jobs in rural communities.”
Sugar is a key building block in renewable industrial processes, he said. The technology didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago.
“Sugar is there to support fermentation for yeast and bacteria and other microorganisms that can make chemicals but they need the sugar as the feed stock,” McLaughlin said.
In August, Montreal-based BioAmber Inc. announced the opening of a $141.5 million plant in Sarnia to produce bio-based, succinic acid with annual capacity of 30,000 tonnes. The plant is the world’s largest producing succinic acid, a renewable source of chemicals used to replace oil-based production. Shipments of finished product began in October, judging by corporate reports available online.
As well, the Ontario Sugar Beet Association has spearheaded a feasibility study for new Sarnia-based processing facilities expected to cost at least $100 million. Lambton College researchers have begun a preliminary study of the proposal for completion this fall.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Don McCabe, who farms in Lambton County and is also listed as a board member of BIC, expressed strong support for the Comet plan. A company statement announcing the plant location quotes McCabe to say “new uses for agricultural residues in the bio-based chemical, supply chain leads to sustainable farms and new markets.”
Comet’s Richard described construction of the new plant as “a key step towards the large-scale commercialization of our cellulosic sugar business.”
The move highlights the important role our technology plays in the value chain, helping to drive the bioeconomy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
A commercial use for corn stover helps farmers clean up their fields even as it generates a new revenue stream, McLaughlin said. With increasing corn yields in excess of 200 bushels per acre, more stalks and leaves are generated “than the field can really handle,” he said.
“We’re getting to the level of corn yields where you’re creating a lot more corn stover, and that creates other problems for next year’s crop,” he said.
Although recent, low petroleum prices create short-term disincentives for biotech investments, McLaughlin expects continued development of such technology in Sarnia and elsewhere.
“The other thing that’s driving it right now is consumers and the global demand for more green, more sustainable technology,” he said. “You don’t get that from petroleum, you get it from bio-based products that are renewable,” McLaughlin said.