When Sandy Marshall looks back on his career and recalls growing up on a farm not very far from Sarnia-Lambton, he finds it somewhat ironic that much of his work as executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada is in many ways related to a way of life he once wanted to leave behind.
The fact is, Marshall went on to attend the University of Waterloo, where he earned both an undergraduate and master’s degree in chemical engineer, the graduate degree specializing in pyrolysis, the science that governs the breaking down of biomass into various oils that are key to various projects that Bioindustrial Innovation Canada is helping to commercialize.
“It’s a core piece of what we’re doing now,” says Marshall, a veteran of Chemical Valley who just a few years ago served as president and general manager at LANXESS (now ARLANXEO).
When he left the company in 2013, Marshall set up his own consultancy before taking the helm at BIC in July 2013.
He still sees the irony in remembering that he left the family farm because he wanted to be more challenged, something he believed then and still does now, that engineering is a problem-solving discipline that combines mathematics and sciences.
“I just didn’t see that there was an opportunity to be challenged on the farm,” he says now, a smile appearing on his face.
Today, there are several projects that BIC continues to have a role in overseeing, its mission being to give not only a boost but to make the connections and foster relationships throughout the Chemical Valley and beyond. The intention, of course, is to build a base for a new industry, one that’s based on a source of energy that has more recently been in the ground than the conventional oil and gas that industry continues to depend on as a source for its products.
One of those projects is Comet Biorefining, a firm that’s working to commercialize a process of converting cellulosic biomass into high-quality cost-competitive products. This enabling and ground-breaking technology allows manufacturers to have a reliable and consistent source of sustainable ingredients that can be used directly or converted to value-added end products.
In 2016, BIC established the Centre for Commercialization of Sustainable Chemistry Innovation (COMM SCI) initiative program, a sort of investment envelope created with funding from the Canadian government (the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario) and Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade.
Through COMM SCI, BIC champions commercialization, cluster and value chain development by providing business advice, technical services and project funding support to participating small- and medium-sized enterprises, including Comet Bio. In doing so, it hopes to accelerate technology development, removing barriers to commercialization and enabling broader product adoption.
With Comet Bio, in particular, Marshall and his team are continuing to support the drive to build a network of farmers, producers who will provide biomass such as corn stover that will be subsequently processed into products such as sweeteners.
Marshall says Comet Bio has now close to 120 producers, which represents sufficient biomass acreage to commercialize its process.
What’s left is to secure financing for a plant that will be built on the site of TransAlta, the energy producer that occupies the former Dow Chemical Canada site in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
It’s a project that BIC has been engaged with since 2012, which means projects such as this have a fairly long incubation period, much longer than what Marshall was engaged with when he worked in Chemical Valley.
“When I was there, working in operations, it was often about optimizing a process,” he said. “This is an interesting difference where you’re looking ahead, down the road, not just optimizing a system but actually creating something.”
There are others, of course. Many others.
One is Origin Materials, a company that has created a different way of turning underutilized feedstocks such as cardboard, wood waste and agricultural residues into new products.
Headquartered in California, Origin Materials was looking for an ideal site to locate a “pioneer” plant when it discovered Sarnia through an independent site selection process with no connection to BIC. It turns out that right here, with our infrastructure and cooperative culture, was just the place to be.
The firm then went a step further, taking space in the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park to install a pilot plant for its technology, moving the physical equipment and engaging a local engineering firm, Rock Technical, to retrofit it to Canadian standards.
Marshall gets excited about a good many projects BIC takes on, but especially those who focus on what he calls the “circular economy”— materials that will deliver a value equivalent to what they were originally created to do.
An example of this is in Li-Cycle, another company in which BIC has invested. The firm is focused on taking depleted batteries and recovering the lithium and cobalt that would typically be mixed in with freshly mined material. In Li-Cycle’s case, the materials are recovered back to “virgin” grade, and much higher efficiency.
Marshall and his team is worked with Li-Cycle on a site study that has identified two Canadian sites—Brockville and Sarnia—as both more advantageous than a third alternative based in New York state.
“I think that’s exciting,” said Marshall. “It showed Ontario is very competitive even with the kind of financial incentives coming from the U.S.”
While BIC continues to invest in several ventures, all promising in their own right, one relatively early stage initiative is Forward Water, a firm based in Kingston, near Queen’s University.
The company, which has been struggling to commercialize its operation, has now received funding from BIC as well as a “family office” based in Toronto—essentially a high net worth family that chooses to make a difference without disclosing their identity.
BIC’s role was to introduce Forward Water’s technology to the investment group.
In essence, Forward Water has a process that involves a three-step process to cleaning high volumes of industrial water, extracting valuable energy and leaving behind clean water that can be recycled to the operation, creating a “closed loop.”
Marshall calls it a “cool, very valuable technology for water clean-up.”
There are others, of course, and Marshall points to the BIC website (www.bincanada.ca) which has a complete list of projects in its portfolio.
He wraps up the conversation with some thoughts about how BIC is approaching its mission and how engineering plays a key role.
“As much as the development of a bio-economy, we’re really talking about sustainable chemistry,” he says. “It’s what we’ve been focused on for the last few years. The circular economy, things like water purification, are also part of sustainable chemistry. These are equal priorities in our efforts to enable the best sustainable chemistry technologies to commercialize.”
And the engineering part?
“It really is all about engineering,” says Marshall. “Good science needs good engineering to commercialize. The most exciting time in my career was developing the hydrogenating technology at Polysar, taking the science to convert it into a plant. But the middle phase—going through the applied research and commercializing the technology, the partnership between science and engineering, you need both of those skillsets.”
This article first appeared in the March/April issue of Lambton Shield magazine.