22 April 2004

Think outside the bottle, says bioplastics expert

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico – A materials physicist says farmers should start thinking about how to participate in a new value-added industry that turns canola and flax into plastics, chemicals and fuels.

Suresh Narine, director of the Alberta Bioplastics Network, plans to build such a plant in Alberta within the next three years. He hopes to see producer investment in the new facility through a new generation co-operative. Narine told producers attending the Canola Council of Canada’s 37th annual convention that it’s the only short-term way they can secure price premiums for the crops they deliver to industrial products facilities. “If producers own part of the facility, then they can protect their right to supply that facility,” said Narine.

By controlling the supply of canola, producers will be able to exact some influence on the price they receive for the raw product. The ultimate solution is to develop a bioengineered strain of canola containing the attributes required for the plastics industry. That way all the producers growing the variety could participate in price premiums.

The idea of investing in a bioplastics plant appeals to Ed Rempel, director of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. “I honestly believe that if you don’t own the means of production you’re simply a serf,” said the Starbuck, Man., grower. “A lot of our brothers and sisters in the livestock industry are finding that out.”

Rempel asked Narine what a $100 million US investment would buy and was told it would pay for two large-scale plants. One such plant would have the ability to use an estimated 75 percent of Western Canada’s current canola production if it achieved the kind of market penetration Narine and his team think is possible. “But there’s a lot of ifs there,” he admitted.

Ninety-five percent of the 180 million tonnes of plastics produced worldwide annually are made from fossil fuel. These petro-plastics are non-biodegradable and require huge amounts of energy in the production process, consuming four percent of the world’s petroleum supplies.

The market for biodegradable plastics in the U.S., Japan and Europe has grown to $260 million US in 2004, from $40 million US in 1997. Narine said the potential for bioplastics and biochemicals is staggering. Dupont has publicly stated it plans to seek 25 percent of its materials for plastics and chemicals from renewable resources by 2010. “That’s not very far away.”

The University of Alberta’s process for creating plastics from canola also generates a number of high-value byproducts that could supply substantial additional sources of revenue. “We could probably give away the plastics for free,” said Narine.

He wouldn’t divulge what those byproducts are for proprietary reasons but told delegates at the convention that canola and flax can be used to make drying oils in paints and varnishes, biochemicals, fuel lubricants, solvents and cosmetics.

Based on the past 10 years of production patterns, Narine estimates the canola industry could easily produce an additional four million tonnes of crop if there was a viable market for canola outside the edible oil segment.

Another potential big industrial user of canola is the biodiesel sector. Europe will produce an estimated 1.87 million tonnes of the environmentally friendly fuel in 2004, up 14 percent from 2003 levels, said Peter Reimers, manager of biodiesel for ADM Agri-Industries Ltd. Government tax incentives and subsidies for the industry range from 29 cents per litre in Austria to 47 cents per L in Germany.

“Without subsidies there are no economics in biodiesel.” Reimers said canola makes a better quality of biodiesel than soybeans for use in cold weather climates because it can withstand cooler temperatures before it crystalizes and plugs fuel filters. When the mercury dips beyond that point, canola-based fuels can be enhanced with additives to make the crystals so fine they still pass through the filters.

Source: Grease Works! vom 2004-04-09.

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