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Agriculture Biomass Technology

Accelerating the Canadian Bio-Based Chemical Industry.

bsc02Many thanks for the time today, to open up could you perhaps tell us a little more about the National Research Council Canada and your work in bio-chemistry?

Dr. Jim Johnston (JJ): No problem Luke. The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is the Government of Canada’s research and technology organization, we provide innovation support, strategic research and technical services to a wide range of clients and partners. Within the NRC Im the Senior Research Officer, Bio-actives and Bio-products and Program Leader for the NRCs Bio-based Specialty Chemicals (BSC) Program. In what is a really growing, exciting area we partner with the industry to help accelerate their research and developments gaps and accelerate the commercial readiness of technologies to produce high-value and specialty chemicals from biomass.

LU: And alongside the growth of bio-chemicals, I understand that the NRC has also been through some changes in recent years?

JJ: Yes, thats right. In 2013, NRC transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization to help Canadian companies bridge technology gaps and build a more innovative Canadian economy. So we have four business lines strategic research and development, technical services, management of national scientific infrastructure and our Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).

LU: So what would be the support youd give to someone coming to you who works in the bio-chemistry area?

JJ: We would aim to help them bring their idea from pilot stage to commercial readiness. And in a less-costly and quicker way. The team here has expertise in both the science behind the products but also the possibilities for commercial development. So our support includes access to cutting edge equipment, research, training, overcoming obstacles and other support needed to bridge that gap from discovery to commercialization. We use a classic Technological Readiness Level (TRL) scale, usually joining in with a company when they are on around point 3 or 4 and working with them up to point 7 or 8.

LU: Great, with lots going on at the moment within our industry, could you pick out one area that particularly excites you at the moment?

JJ: Indeed, its a busy time and we are seeing some major developments across the bio-chemistry industry. Naturally being in Canada we work closely with biomass and there have been some moves to improve diversity in that area. Id look particularly at the valorisation of animal or plant waste streams which constitute an enormous potential resource to provide biomass. Research in this area is really accelerating and chemical manufacturers are seeing an increased interest in its potential.

LU: Can you tell us a little bit about a project youre working on at this time?

JJ: Project development in the Bio-based Specialty Chemicals program is an ongoing process and we are constantly looking for new ways to interact with industry. An example that comes to mind is a recent interaction with an industry partner to help improve a fermentation technology that employs methanotrophic bacteria to produce high value pigments. Rather than a simple service contract, we entered into a master collaborative agreement that creates a framework for many different project types. The bulk of R&D in this agreement involves process improvements to increase product yields and reduce production costs, such as new approaches to overcome the foaming problems common to these bacterial systems. This work addresses the immediate technology pain points facing the partner, while allowing NRC to further improve its expertise in an area of traditional strength. However, a third of the agreement is dedicated to value-added activities to develop new market applications and technologies. For example, we are looking at new enzymes for the conversion of residual microbial biomass into co-products, such as flavourings, and exploring alternative fermentation feedstocks, such as C5 sugars. This integrated approach to project development reflects the programs commitment to both growing the existing bio-based chemicals industry while planning for long-term sustainability.

LU: Thanks, so conclude from our discussion you are feeling positive about where the industry is heading?

JJ: Broadly speaking yes I am, the uptake of bio-chemicals is growing and companies are increasingly engaged with the industry. The potential and scope is being more apparent and its altogether a more focussed industry than it was a few years ago. Although theres still a lot of work required. Cost will always be a hurdle, most will still not pay a green premium so a product has to if not cheaper, certainly better. But companies are seeing first move advantages now, and in itself that is exciting. If you can provide a strong business case for a product that is green you are in a very positive positon.

For more on The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) click here.

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