University 101: Network readies UAlberta for a biofuel revolution

If there are aspects to UAlberta that you don’t understand, chances are you’re not alone. The university can be a complicated entity with many moving parts. University 101 was created to assist the campus community in better understanding who does what and how things get done at the university.

In a concerted effort to become the nexus where traditional resource riches and expertise meets the energy future of biofuels, the University of Alberta, with the full support of the Alberta government, has created an organization designed to marry provincial research communities and industry in the areas of biorefining and biomass conversion technologies to achieve outcomes that can be commercialized.

Launched in 2009 with a $3-million grant from Advanced Education and Technology through the Alberta Innovates Biosolutions Corporation, the Biorefining Conversions Network came into being as a way to build teams that could work with industry and build bigger partnerships in that space.

“Instead of having academics across the province competing, you would have them work together with their disciplines to create a package that would be interesting to industry to collaborate with,” said David Bressler, the BCN’s director and founder. “While it is based and founded at U of A, it has a Campus Alberta mandate and is actively working on collaborations with NAIT, Olds College, the University of Calgary and Alberta Innovates Technologies Futures.”

Bressler was selected to head up this group in part because of his groundbreaking research into biomass transformation into fuels and chemicals, but also because of his ability “to speak a few different academic languages—and I tend to be fairly applied in nature.

“So the network started basically with a guy who had a lot of contacts in engineering and a lot of contacts in science, and could collaborate across a lot of disciplines.”

Bressler says at its core, the network is about working with the traditional energy sectors to find a way to bridge them and find ways to use renewable feedstock to make the chemicals and materials we need for society going forward.

“In a way, it is about finding and supporting economic development and diversification better,” he said. “We are not looking to improve things, we are looking to radically create new markets and new opportunities that are all green, are sustainable and help support the backbone of the economy here in Alberta.”

In just three short years, the network has calved 16 projects to go with a number of patents, papers and even the prospects of companies being born. But Bressler says that is just one of the benefits of the BCN. He adds the U of A is in a unique position globally to take a leadership role here.

“We have all the faculties needed right here and they all have links to each other,” said Bressler. “Being in Alberta, we at the U of A understand the resource sectors better than a lot of other jurisdictions and understand how to best interface in a compatible way.”

Besides researching biofuels, Bressler says, the network has branches in adding value to agriculture and forestry as well as researchers involved who are exploring ways of greening the oilsands. He adds the Biorefining Conversions Network is also involved in creating networks across Canada, North America and the world.

“India, Japan, Germany—everyone is looking at Alberta as a hub to link to right now,” said Bressler. “We are at the beginning of almost an entire revolution on how our economy is shaped.

“[The technologies that come out of entities like the Biorefining Conversions Network] are going to redefine everything. It is of the scale, I believe, of an industrial revolution, and we have just started into it—it’s huge.”