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Site design: W. Findlay
Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

RESEARCH CLUSTERS

Cluster 1a - Biomass

Research in this section will lay the groundwork for an integrated sustainable plan for producing low-cost biomass from agricultural sources in Canada. CBioN researchers are focused on developing a “Canadian Agricultural Biomass Map” to maximize the sustainable use of land resources and residues (straws, stover, chaff) from growing major Canadian crops: wheat, barley, canola, flax, corn, oats, field peas. CBioN includes research on alfalfa, triticale, mustard, and perennial grasses, such as intermediate wheatgrass, which are plant species with strong potential to become dedicated renewable biomass feed-stocks in Canada. Research on dedicated biomass crops includes selection or modification for greater biomass and improved adaptability to low-fertility soils and extreme environments. Research is also identifying deficiencies in harvest and compaction of biomass crops and food crop residues. CBioN is developing practical engineering methods and designing equipment to decrease the cost of bringing agricultural feedstocks to the ethanol factory from distant production sites. As such, it is in contact with Canada’s only agricultural biomass equipment manufacturer. Additional research funding is sought to support agronomy, nutrient recycling, environmental sustainability, and biomass crop genomics and metabolomics.

Cluster 1b - Analysis and Pre-treatment

A wide range of physical and chemical pre-treatment technologies for cell wall deconstruction are being compared and optimized for agricultural residue within CBioN laboratories. The most promising will be tested in pilot-scale facilities to develop fibre deconstruction processes with low energy inputs, low production costs, and gentle methods that show reduced impact on the environment. These include biomass shredding, powdering, thermo-chemical conversion technologies, and “green” chemical extraction. The most promising will also be tested in combination with enzymes to optimize fibre deconstruction and cellulose conversion into sugars. Pre-treatment and deconstruction technologies will be tailored for each feedstock (crop) source identified above. The application of these technologies requires an in-depth chemical analysis of plant biomass cell-walls and residue.

Cluster 2 - Enzymes

Enzyme-based deconstruction strategies are being tailored to provide optimized cocktails for each of the crop species important to the Canadian Biomass Map. Over the course of the research, new candidate enzymes and genes for cellulases, lignases, esterases, hydrolases, peroxidases, and xylanases will be developed from the extensive fungal and bacterial collections developed by members of CBioN. The most promising technologies developed by this section will be tested in combinations with optimized pre-treatment protocols to ensure that the most effective biomass deconstruction protocols are developed.

Cluster 3 - Designer Cell Walls

Agricultural biomass and crop residue sources are being supported by in-depth functional genomics research on understanding and modifying plant cell-wall biosynthesis in model plant species and by applying this knowledge to bio-ethanol feedstock plants. The approach should enable the development of new plants with cell walls that are more amenable to fibre and (hemi)-cellulose digestion, eg. with modified lignin/pectin content and composition, modified cross-linking capacity, or increased cellulose content. Additional funds are being sought in the areas of biomass crop genomics.

Cluster 4 - Plant Expression of Enzymes

The high cost of cell wall-degrading enzymes is a major barrier to bio-ethanol production. This constraint is being handled by introducing genes for cell-wall-degrading enzymes into a limited number of crop plant species. The potential to use plants as enzyme production “factories” is high and when achieved will dramatically reduce the cost of enzyme production. CBioN researchers have already produced transgenic tobacco containing high activity levels of exo-cellulase without affecting plant growth (by sequestering the enzyme to the chloroplast) (Bae et al., 2006). Where possible, plant expression of these enzymes will be tailored in ways that can result in efficient auto-hydrolysis of crop residues or to produce commercializable, low cost, highly-active enzymes.

Cluster 5 - Fermentation Efficiency

Fermentation of sugars is being optimized by CBioN by selecting and engineering improved yeast strains with increased fermentation efficiency and broad substrate capacity to suit Canadian agricultural cellulosic feedstock sugars. Fermentation strains are also being engineered with the capacity to deconstruct agricultural fibre and digest cellulose directly and to tolerate inhibitors that arise from different feedstocks. Fermentation products also will be separated into high protein yeast, ethanol, and unreacted sugars that can be concentrated and converted into value-added co-products, such as xylitol, through a downstream secondary process.

Cluster 6 - Economic, Environmental, Ethical, Legal and Social issues

This is a multidisciplinary team which integrates all the activities of the network into a tangible business outcome. Section members draw on expertise in biomass optimization and production, bio-resource engineering, equipment/plant design, cell-wall deconstruction and biosynthesis, fermentation, business integration, and IP value capture. Modelling research for energy/mass balance and life cycle (greenhouse gas) analysis will factor in biomass yield potential, production cost, feedstock sustainability and ecological cost, energy input/output, and feedstock competition in the fuel and livestock sectors. Bio-economic analysis will factor in bio-resource/agricultural engineering, ethanol plant design, technology scale-up, life cycle analysis, and capturing the value of IP generated by the Network. Outcomes will include “decision trees” which can be used to balance food, animal feed, and ethanol fuel uses for agricultural crops. Modelling will use CBioN best practices and technologies to optimize economic and environmental gains from raw and processed cellulosic materials. Intellectual property gained through the Network will be protected in a fashion that will strengthen the development of a Canadian bio-ethanol industry. The end result will be a Road Map for the development of an environmentally-sustainable and viable industry which can use low-value agricultural residues and biomass crops. Research funds are sought in the area of environmental sustainability, social responsibility and ethics.