New chair looks to ensure ‘nothing is waste’

Debora Van Brenk//Western NewsWestern Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Professor Franco Berruti was named the new Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Thermochemical Conversion of Biomass and Waste to Bio-industrial Resources.

Franco Berruti’s work is all about making something out of ‘nothing.’ Biofuels from biomass. Pharmaceuticals from forestry byproducts. Soil supplements from heaps of tomato leaves.

“Nothing is a waste,” said the Chemical and Biochemical Engineering professor. “Everything should be seen as a resource.”

Berruti will now build on that work thanks to his recent naming as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Thermochemical Conversion of Biomass and Waste to Bio-industrial Resources. The position was announced Thursday at Western’s Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR).

His mission is to transform one producers’ waste into a revenue asset for another producer.

Berruti and his team are working with 12 diverse partners – 11 industries plus the City of London – to research and apply a full-circle approach to resources.

At ICFAR, Berruti’s team uses ‘thermal cracking’ – a method that applies high heat to extract hydrocarbons from biomass, organic residues, co-products and wastes. Those hydrocarbons are then converted to gases, liquids and biochar solids that can be used commercially in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and as a stable, carbon-rich soil amendment.

This process has both environmental and economic benefits, Berruti noted.

Debora Van Brenk//Western NewsNewly named Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair Franco Berruti shows Engineering Dean Ken Coley a pyrolysis unit that uses high heat to convert ‘waste’ biomass to useful gas, bio-oil and biochar that can be used commercially and industrially.

The partnership across industries – from feedstock to chemical producers to high-tech companies – ensures connections among the sources of biomass, the researcher/chemists and the users of the end products.

“This is just a spectacular example of what I would hope research can do,” said Sarah Prichard, Acting Vice-President (Research). “As citizens, we should be grateful for the big problems you’re trying to solve and care about.”

One example, Berruti noted, is that commercial greenhouses can produce tonnes of plant-and-plastic waste that would otherwise go to the landfill. The pyrolysis process Berruti’s team is developing can turn the biomass into useful products, including biochar – a solid used in high-end cosmetics, an absorbent in wastewater facilities or a soil enhancer that helps reduce the need to apply phosphorus to farmland.

“I act a bit as a marriage broker between producers and end users,” Berruti joked. “You see research going into action almost immediately.”

This is “exactly the type of forum we need to support early-stage industry” and grow a sustainable, circular resource and research economy, said Sandy Marshall, Executive Director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, a non-profit that works with business developers of green technologies.

London city councillor Phil Squire said this is an example of how to bring sound research into the public sphere. “Day in and day out, we’re inundated with things people think are great ideas (but are) not based in science.”

London is a partner in Berruti’s work in collaboration with the Waste-to-Resources Innovation Centre, which uses space at the city’s recycling facility to research efficient and effective ways of turning Londoners’ waste into fuel and extending the life of city landfill sites.

Engineering Dean Ken Coley said the Industrial Research Chair highlights the “catalytic effect” of bringing in and cultivating smart researchers while working across industrial, agricultural and public sectors. “Without partnerships, this wouldn’t be possible,” he said.