CROSSROADS IN BIOTECHNOLOGY AND INDUSTRIAL SUSTAINABILITY

Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI)

Montreal, March 22 - 23, 2006

Written by: Robert H. Marchessault, robert.marchessault@mcgill.ca

Enzyme catalysts and Biorefineries were featured at BRI's annual "Crossroads" for 300 attendees. Some 35 speakers from Europe ,USA and Canada covered topics ranging from flax composites to bio-manufacturing and the ADM/Metabolix venture for large scale microbial synthesis of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) which Forbes magazine called "a molecule that will change the world".

McGill's Marc Fortin made his debut as a deputy minister for Agrifood Canada and invited everyone to move beyond "food/feed/fiber" and contemplate new biomass investments.

OECD representative Dr. Jacques Scheib defined the Bioeconomy as all societal events affecting bio-based dependence e.g. climate change, population growth, nanotechnology etc. The role of bioenergy within global energy demand was the subject of a presentation by W. Verstraete, Univesity of Ghent, who spoke of the conversion of organic matter to electricity by means of bacteria. The building of starch-based ethanol factories marches on, with 50 employees for ten million gallons capacity. Total alcohol production approaches one hundred billion gallons per year as cellulosic ethanol starts to contribute.

Ralph W. F. Hardy, Dupont's early scientific management leader, praised the larger establishments: ADM, BP, Cargill, Shell who are converting from a paradigm of unsustainable fossil fuel to sustainable biomass which will strengthen the U.S. economy by more than one trillion $ in ten years. The strategy of Steven E. Koonin, Chief Scientist at BP is development of dedicated energy crops to avoid affecting food crops.

Exciting biotechnological accounts of bulk chemical commercialization based on microbial catalysts for the production of nylon and polyester precursors as well as specialty chemicals were reviewed by Robert DiCosimo of Dupont Central Research.

Canada's Iogen Corp. process from steam exploded wheat straw to fuel ethanol via Trichoderma was reviewed by Dr. J. Tolan. A complete bio-refinery process is being developed where non-glucose sugars and lignin are separated from cellulose. After cellulase hydrolysis, fermentation/distillation to alcohol and enrichment of premium gasoline the commercial process demonstration of about 600 gallons per day is complete.

Another bio-refinery success story is continuously unfolding at Tembec's Temiscaming sulfite pulp mill. Leon Magdzinski, Director of R&D, described a sawdust starting point with diverse energy sources. Integrated manufacturing yields a plethora of specialty products: ethanol, alpha cellulose pulp, drug excipients, lignosulphonates, cellulose derivatives, etc.

The 2 day meeting ended with a Canada - focused discussion. Regional representatives identified local objectives e.g. biodiesel fuel (Quebec and Ontario), flax for the West and government support for everyone with minimum US subsidy for American farmers.