From seed to sky

Courtney
Courtney Symons
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How an Ottawa clean-tech company is leading the charge in green aviation

It starts with a seed. Brassica carinata is a resilient oilseed that will grow in hot, dry regions where other food production is scarce. With some modification, it can be processed into jet fuel that flies planes with 50 per cent fewer emissions than conventional fuel.

Agrisoma Biosciences Inc., a local clean-tech company, has been perfecting that oilseed for 12 years, selling it to farmers out west and working with companies that process the seed into biofuel. Those small seeds are the firm’s ticket into the burgeoning industry of green transportation for military and commercial aviation.

 

CLEAN SLATE

The International Air Transport Association is targeting a 50 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defence consumed about 117 million barrels of oil in fiscal 2011 – about one per cent of all U.S. petroleum use – and is also on the lookout for alternative fuel sources, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Right now, there aren’t many alternatives for aviation fuel – using batteries, as cars can, isn’t possible for powering enormous flying vehicles. Biofuel is currently the only clean option, says Marc McArthur, president of Crosstaff Consulting Inc. and former manager of the Ottawa Cleantech Initiative

“All new growth in the industry after 2020 will be carbon neutral,” he says. “It’ll (create a market for) billions and billions of litres of fuel for potential business.”

Currently, Agrisoma’s oilseed – which is branded as Resonance – is under evaluation by U.S. defence agencies, according to the firm’s president and CEO, Steven Fabijanski.

“Aviation is one of the fastest growing transportation industries,” he says. “It’s international in scope, and there are many different national environmental laws. One of the most expedient ways to satisfy everyone is to fly on fuel that is cleaner.”

 

MAKING DIESEL LESS DIRTY

While the oilseed crop cannot be used to power cars cleanly – that’s done by ethanol, which begins as a starch and is fermented much like beer – it can be used to replace diesel fuel. Aviation fuel and diesel are very similar, and more like oil than gasoline.

The Canadian government now requires that all diesel fuel sold in Canada contain at least two per cent renewable diesel. That number is five per cent in the United States.

Diesel is yet another major market that Agrisoma hopes to tap into, Mr. Fabijanski says.

 

WHY OTTAWA?

Most of Agrisoma’s more than 6,000 acres of oilseed crop are grown in Western Canada within Palliser’s Triangle – a region of dry, semi-arid land that is difficult to farm, located mostly in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The resilient Resonance crop is genetically refined by Agrisoma to grow faster and create more oil. Through outreach programs, the Ottawa-based firm encourages farmers to grow Resonance while resting their fields from cereal and wheat. It’s more profitable than the alternative of leaving them fallow, and the byproduct can be used as animal feed.

The company plans to expand not by moving up the value chain and processing the fuel itself, but by increasing the number of acres on which its crop is grown. That will include expanding into the United States as well as into dry, hot regions in Australia and Europe, Mr. Fabijanski says.

But none of those areas include Ottawa, so why be headquartered here?

“The industry is growing, but it’s really got some policy and awareness issues,” he says. “By having the administration here in Ottawa, we are able to reach decision-makers and policy-makers in government.”

Many American biofuel companies are headquartered in Washington, D.C. for the same reason, he says.

It seems the decision is paying off. When Agrisoma’s crop was used to power the first-ever civil flight using 100 per cent biofuel in an initiative last October that was funded by the National Research Council of Canada, federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis sent the firm a congratulatory note.

“When the ministers are following what you’re doing, I think that means Ottawa is a good place to be as this industry starts to grow,” Mr. Fabijanski says.

 

THE FUTURE OF FUEL

As encouraging as the NRC test flight was – with 50 per cent emissions reductions compared to traditional aviation fuel – it’s difficult to gain traction in a slow economy when biofuel remains more expensive than petroleum.

And even if business were to pick up tomorrow, the oilseed crop might not be able to meet the demand. Climate change can have a severe impact on supply, and while the crop has been tested, not many acres of it exist. Plus, the competition could creep up and threaten the company’s survival.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the challenges for firms in the cleantech race  – Iogen Corp., a local bioethanol producer, cut 150 jobs last April as it shelved plans to build a large-scale facility in Manitoba.

Despite the risks, Mr. Fabijanski says he has no doubt that the industry will take off and that Agrisoma will with it.

“It will happen, whether it happens a year or two from now, or in a few years,” he says. “It’s not just about being green. It’s about creating new industries and sharing the wealth.”

Karen Pero, Invest Ottawa’s senior business development manager for the clean-tech sector, says that the 100 per cent biofuel flight is something no other seed provider can add to its resumé.

The flight “provides a greater level of confidence to the international markets that this is something that has the potential to be the fuel of tomorrow,” she says.

“And as for the impact on Ottawa, if that becomes the fuel of tomorrow, then we’re the home and founder of it.”

 

 

SIDEBAR: SEED STATS

 

Developed from Brassica carinata, Agrisoma Carinata delivers high oil content and a tailored biofuel oil profile. This crop is uniquely suited to semi-arid conditions, enabling the widespread production of energy feedstock without the displacement of food crops.

 

YIELD COMPARISONS: (gallons of oil per acre)

Soybean: 50

Canola: 100

Carinata: 130

Modified carinata: 200

 

DEMAND FOR BIOFUEL:

In the U.S., the expanded Renewable Fuels Standard stipulates a minimum of 21 billion gallons of biofuel from non-food crops by 2022.

Globally, biojet fuel from vegetable oil has been approved by the American Society for Testing & Materials for up to 50 per cent blend rates, opening the door to 58 billion gallons of aviation biofuels.

 

Source: Agrisoma Bioscience

Organizations: Agrisoma Biosciences, SLATEThe International Air Transport Association, Department of Defence Congressional Research Service.Right Crosstaff Consulting Ottawa Cleantech Initiative Australia and Europe National Research Council of Canada NRC Iogen Corp. Renewable Fuels Standard American Society for Testing Materials

Geographic location: Ottawa, United States, Western Canada United States.Diesel Southern Alberta Washington, D.C.

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