Don Smith is on a mission to make Canada’s future greener and cleaner, and he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
The James McGill professor in McGill’s Department of Plant Science, who developed his passion for plant science while growing up on a farm, is now directing a national biofuel research collective.
Smith will lead BioFuelNet Canada, one of three brand new Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) in Canada. BioFuelNet—which will receive $25-million in funding, and as much as another $25-million in partner funding—comprises a network of over 100 researchers from over 25 institutions.
As Scientific Director of the NCE, he will lead the charge to procure alternative energy sources in Canada, and help establish and maintain links among the work of researchers across the country.
Smith’s interest in biofuels (fuel derived from living matter) originated in the early 2000s when he was trying to find ideas that would be useful to farmers who were trying to diversify their sources of income. At the time, crop prices were very low; some Canadian prairie farmers were burning wheat for heat as the price of wheat was very low and the price of energy was rising.
“Honestly, at this time I was trying to find some way to improve the financial situation of the agriculture industry. It was through this research that I identified the need for alternative energy sources, which became a very pressing issue.” he explains.
As the direction of his interests shifted to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels for energy, he delved into research on biofuels.
Initial biofuel considerations involved using sugar and starch, generally from food crops, to produce fuel. However, global food availability is now an issue, and there has been a need to look away from food crops and to sources like crop and forestry residues (straw and slash) and the organic matter we put into our dumps. Biofuels based on these are now commonly referred to as “advanced” biofuel.
Have we already hit peak oil?
The urgency of the need to find alternative energy sources was recently reinforced for Smith when he attended a talk with Bruce Dale, a Chemical Engineering professor at Michigan State University who specializes in renewable energy.
“[Dale] explained that he believes peak oil (the point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached) happened in 2004. Of course, we can only know this for certain in hindsight, and probably won’t know until about 2020, but it’s very likely that we have hit peak oil.”
We are beginning to see, Smith explains, the relationships between this non-renewable commodity and our economy.
“There’s a cycle that happens in this way: the economy crashes, then starts to recover, which increases economic activity, which then puts pressure on energy needs, so prices go up, which in turn crashes the economy. This can all happen now in the course of three to four years, which is a very short cycle. This all leads to highly variable pricing for energy, and this is not a good thing.”
For this reason, improving our understanding of and use of renewable resources is becoming increasingly important, Smith says.
“By being involved in this project (BioFuelNet), I aim to help coordinate Canadian efforts to accelerate our research on biofuels. There’s a lot of biomass [in Canada] and lots of potential, but a lot of work to be done.”
Be like Brazil
According to Smith, Brazil is the poster child for alternative energy use.
“Half of their fluid fuels are biofuels, and production of biofuels takes up only one per cent of their agriculture land. One hundred per cent of their cars run on a flex fuel system, which means that the cars use any mix of ethanol and gas, as the car senses the mix and adjusts the engine accordingly,” he notes.
How has Brazil managed to be so successful with alternative fuels, while other countries lag behind? In his opinion, there are a number of contributing factors. Their shift to biofuels was initiated in the 1970s during the OPEC oil crisis. At this time Brazil had no proven oil reserves, so it was forced to look really hard for alternatives.
“They also have a year-round climate for farming, and they harvest sugarcane, which grows really fast, and there are very large areas available for agriculture,” Smith adds.
In addition, Brazil’s total per capital energy consumption is much lower than Canada’s, one of the highest. Smith believes, however, that there is both possibility and great need for Canada to move in Brazil’s direction.
“We have our own challenges, such as the need for heating in the winter and the energy that demands, but there is great potential. We’re on rocky terrain if we don’t consider that potential.”
What BioFuelNet can do
The BioNetFuel NCE’s overarching goal, as Smith articulates it, is “to be able to provide a meaningful slice of total energy needs in Canada as quickly as possible.”
The NCE aims in doing so to connect the efforts of Canadian researchers.
“We share two large objectives: first, conduct research to facilitate the development of the biofuel sector; secondly, link all elements of the biofuel research community, including the biofuel industry sector, together as much as possible, and eliminate redundancies. If two researchers are working on two related parts, we want to connect those so they can move together as one.”
“We have to learn how to exploit biomass, but do so in a sustainable way. We can’t just rip down the landscape. We do that once, and it’s gone. So we need to find a way to produce and harvest biomass for all applications in a way that’s sustainable.”
Lastly, Smith shared some simple tips for McGill grads looking to move towards sustainable energy consumption:
“Ride a bike. I ride my bike almost all year, even in the winter. I only stop when I can’t see the ice beneath the snow and it becomes dangerous. Also, drive smaller cars, don’t run the air conditioning or heating higher than you need to, and just only use what you need.”
To learn more about Smith’s work with BioFuelNet, visit http://www.biofuelnet.ca/.