At the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference in February, Comet Biorefining (London, Ontario) announced the location of a new, commercial-scale biomass-derived sugar facility in Sarnia, Ontario. Sustainable Development Technology Canada awarded the company a CDN$10.9 million grant for construction of the plant, a first of its kind.

The project is the result of a partnership between Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Grain Farmers of Ontario, and the newly-formed Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative. The purpose of the partnership is to attract sustainable technology providers to the region and to meet increasing demand from chemical suppliers and consumers for low-carbon products.

The new plant, expected to come online in 2018, is projected to produce 60 million pounds of dextrose sugar annually. Comet Biorefining and Sarnia-area farmers have already begun talks to develop a long-term and cost-effective supply chain that meets the needs of the plant and its suppliers.

“This project is significant because there aren’t yet any commercial scale plants turning cellulosic material into cellulosic sugars for downstream biochemical markets,” said Harrison Pettit, vice-president of corporate development for Pacific Ag. “If it’s successful, and we have no reason to believe it wouldn’t be, there will be opportunity to leverage this model,” he added.   “This represents another significant market application for crop residue.”

Comet’s proprietary conversion process was among four of 18 total studied by the partnership that appeared to best match the criteria of the group. Comet’s technology converts wood, wheat straw, bagasse, corn stover and similar agricultural wastes into high-purity glucose syrup that will later be transformed into bio-based products including organic acids, amino acids and bioplastics. Given its capacity for high yield and fast production time, Comet’s proprietary process features smaller facilities that can be located closer to biomass sources, and results in lower overall production costs.

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada completed an economic feasibility study in 2015 to evaluate the viability of the biomass-to-cellulosic-sugar value chain in Canada. A subsequent Phase 2 assessment completed in 2016 concludes “there is sufficient economic value with available technologies to support the development of a commercial plant to produce cellulosic sugar and co-products in southwestern Ontario using locally-harvested corn stover.”

Indeed, that’s precisely what Comet plans to do by building, owning and operating its own plants and licensing its technology to select partners in order to meet growing demand for bio-based products. Comet’s proprietary technology results in high-purity dextrose that is cost- and performance-competitive with commercial dextrose sugars—the common raw material for today’s biochemical production processes.

The new demand for crop residue bodes well for farmers who are generating increased corn yields from narrower row plantings. These higher yields, combined with corn that’s been engineered to have stronger stalks for standing, have resulted in more crop residue than is healthy to leave on the field for the next planting. Removing 40 to 50 percent of the residue provides biomass for the Comet facility, generates additional income for the grower and allows farmers to continue their preferred no-till approach to field preparation.

“We’re very excited about what’s happening in Canada,” said Pettit. “In the midst of lower fuel prices, the continued investment in bio-based production and crop residue supply chain development signifies a long term confidence in this market as well as forward thinking toward sustainability and environmental responsibility.”