More than feed, food and fuel

New uses for farm crops like car parts, insulation and packaging are in agriculture’s future. That’s the word from three industry experts who were part of a panel discussion looking at agriculture’s opportunities beyond food and fuel at the Eastern Canada Farm Writers annual meeting this week. And Ontario is at the forefront of this new bio-economy, especially in the automotive sector.

The province’s well-developed manufacturing sector and strong agricultural base helped lead to the creation of the Ontario BioAuto Council in 2006 to position Ontario as a world leader in the manufacture of car parts and related materials from agricultural feed stocks.

“Ontario is second only to Texas for manufacturing infrastructure in North America,” says Erin Cheney, the Council’s Director of Operations. “We want to take things from within the province to help build a bio-based economy in Ontario.”

With gas prices rising, the automotive sector is looking at ways to make lighter cars as a way to improve fuel consumption. The focus used to be on improving the engine, says Cheney, but now manufacturers are turning to components, which is creating new opportunities for farmers to market their crops.

“Using soy-based polyols to produce foam for car seats is predicted to be a $50 billion market by 2015,” says Cheney, adding that although Europe is further ahead than North America, car manufacturers on this continent are definitely interested in bio-based materials. This includes a market-ready bumper for the Crown Victoria and foam seats already part of the Ford Escape.

From seed to seat
Woodbridge Foam is the Ontario-based manufacturer of automotive foam made partially from soybeans. Their decision to look to agriculture as a source of raw materials for their products was a strategic one, especially given the rising cost of oil.

“We needed a renewable, robust plant that requires low energy to produce,” says Romeo Stanciu, a scientist with Woodbridge Foam. “And it also needs to be grown worldwide so there is a steady supply.”

Woodbridge launched its soy-based polyol foam product in 2006 and is targeting 80% market penetration by 2010. It offers the same or better comfort and durability as conventionally produced product and its current applications include head and armrests, seats and headliners.

Stanciu says there are commonly-held beliefs about soy-based polyols that are not actually true. For example, bio-polyols can’t yet replace 100% of the petroleum-based polyols. In fact, only 5% of the final foam in car seat cushions is made from soy-based polyols, but Woodbridge is aiming to reach 30% bio-content in the next three years. Foams with bio-content also aren’t biodegradable, although most people think they are.

“The soybean oil has been chemically transformed to make the foam and so the parts that are responsible for the oil’s biodegradability have been removed,” he explains.

New life for an old crop
Self-proclaimed bio-prospector John Baker of Stonehedge Bio-Resources is exploring opportunities for industrial hemp, particularly unique Ontario strains that have been growing here – often in the wild – since they were first brought to Canada by the British navy more than 200 years ago.

“Hemp is an amazing crop with great potential and there’s global interest,” he says. “We’re talking about 18th century genetics for 21st century bio-products.”

Ontario’s hemp varieties can be planted in the fall and will over-winter, resulting in higher yields. This bodes well for farmers being able to supply hemp to the construction industry – two products Baker is looking at are a hemp insulation and Hemcrete, a bio-masonry composite being used in the UK.

“Hemcrete mixes hemp with masonry-like lime that can be poured or blown on,” he says. “More than 2000 houses in the UK will be using this within the next couple of years.

According to Baker, farmers are looking for alternatives to traditional crops, but any replacement needs to satisfy several criteria. Growers want an annual crop that will use existing infrastructure, generate profits from year one, not be limited to one single market opportunity and for it to have the potential to be a good rotational/break crop.

Hemp satisfies most if not all of these requirements, leaving Baker to predicting a bright future for this new – yet old – crop in Canada.

“Hemp can pay up to $150/ton. Americans can’t grow this crop but we have ideal soil for hemp here in Ontario,” he says. “It grows ideally on tobacco sands.”

Baker’s company is building a hemp processing facility that will be able to handle seven tons of straw an hour. It isn’t expected to be up and running until 2009 so he’s reluctant to encourage anyone to start producing hemp just yet. By the same token, he admits it’s a risk to invest in a facility without secure supply.

And that’s where groups like the BioAuto Council can help. One of the Council’s roles is to focus on commercialization efforts to help bring promising research results and prototypes to market by providing start-up funding. The ultimate goal is to create value-chains from the farm to the consumer in areas not traditionally associated with agriculture.

ECFWA 2008 annual meeting photo gallery

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