Nestled in the heart of farm country, Sarnia's chemical valley is turning agricultural and forestry waste into a new crop: clean, sustainable chemicals. The move from petroleum-based chemicals to bio-based (cellulosic) products will reduce the sector's carbon footprint, help control climate change and cultivate new market opportunities for local industry.

While this is a giant leap forward, the process takes time and requires interim steps in the journey. But each step brings exciting new business opportunities. A critical phase in the process is creating hybrid solutions that gradually introduce biomaterials into traditional petroleum products. Woodbridge Foam, a global auto parts manufacturer that produces polyurethane foam for vehicle products, pioneered the hybrid approach in this area. They began by adding 5% to 25% renewable materials such as modified seed oils, starch and forest products to the traditional petrochemical composition of foam.

Planting the seeds of a bioeconomy

In 2008, industry, government and research leaders formed the not-for-profit Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC) to position the Sarnia-Lambton area as a world-scale hybrid chemistry cluster. The start-up funding came from the Ontario government, and the federal government's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) program, among others. Murray McLaughlin, Government and Partner Relations for BIC, reports that over the past seven years, the 14 projects in which they were involved generated $500 million in public- and private-sector investments. "We work closely with the [Ontario government] at every stage of a project."

The Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park

In partnership with BIC, Ontario is investing $3 million over four years to build the Centre of Excellence for the Commercialization of Sustainable Chemistry Innovations at the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park. Ontario is clearly emerging as a global leader in this space.

The Sarnia-Lambton Research Park is also home to Canada's largest clean-tech incubator, the Bowman Centre. The centre currently houses the pilot and demonstration-scale operations of three highly innovative companies: Woodland Biofuels, GreenCore Composites and KmX Corporation.

Sustainability coexists with profitability

New companies such as BioAmber, Suncor's St. Clair Ethanol Plant and Comet Biorefining are joining the hybrid chemistry cluster and setting the standard for developing sustainable solutions that are also profitable. Comet Biorefining, which has developed a commercially viable technology to convert corn stover and wheat straw into high-quality dextrose (sugar), is constructing a plant in Sarnia slated for completion in 2018. Dextrose is a building block in the production of chemicals such as biosuccinic acid used in plastics, resins, paints, textiles, synthetic leather and personal care products.

The ecosystem to go commercial-scale

"In a wide-ranging cellulosic sugar study that BIC conducted, our technology was identified as one that made sense for commercialization," says Andrew Richard, founder of Comet Biorefining in London, Ontario. "To help us establish our commercial-scale facility, BIC introduced us to the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative and generated tremendous support from leaders in government, the community and the industry." Comet Biorefining is now well on its way to supplying biobased chemicals companies.

The Ontario advantage

Ontario has become recognized globally as a desirable place for the bioindustry to do business. Investors from around the world come to learn about integrating green and sustainable chemistry with traditional petroleum products, and to explore partnership opportunities; companies from the Netherlands, Australia and other wide-ranging destinations are looking seriously at doing business in the region.

"Sarnia-Lambton's unique cluster of assets meets the criteria of the bioindustry worldwide," concludes McLaughlin. "The huge supply of biomass, a supportive business environment, proximity to export corridors, an established infrastructure and talented workforce are very attractive."

And they create strong links in a value chain around the bioeconomy.

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