Canadians, Israelis collaborate on biofuel research


Drive by a farm in southern Ontario in October or November and you’ll see fields golden and thick with plant matter. The corn or other crops have been harvested, but there is plenty that remains – the agricultural equivalent of end cuts and remnants.

Farmers feed some of it to their livestock, but when McGill University scientist Donald Smith looks at fields overflowing with biomatter, he doesn’t see just cow fodder. He sees fuel, admittedly not something that can be put directly into your car engine today, but the biomass that can provide a substitute for petroleum in the future.

As things stand today, the technology to turn that brown gold into liquid fuel in a way that can compete economically with fossil fuels is still years away, but there’s no time like the present to set out on the research journey that will make it a commonplace reality.

With that in mind, Smith, along with 10 other scientists and researchers from BioFuelNet Canada, travelled to Israel earlier this month to attend the “Israel-Canada Workshop on Advanced Biofuels.”

The conference was held at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Rehovot campus of Hebrew University. It was sponsored in part by Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, with input from Anat Bonshtien, a member of the “oil free initiative governmental team” inside the Prime Minister’s Office.

Getting Canadians to move away from a petroleum-based dependency is something Smith advocates.

“We’re trying to move the country to renewable fuels, from fossil fuels,” said Smith, scientific director of BioFuelNet, a network of more than 100 researchers whose goal is to procure alternative energy sources while fostering links among scientists across the country.

With the trip to Israel, BioFuelNet is expanding its international relationships. There is potential for joint research, the exchange of ideas leading ultimately to joint commercial ventures in the field, between Canadians and Israelis, Smith said.

Yitzhak Hadar said that when it comes to biofuels, co-operation between Canadians and Israelis is just beginning. But there are good reasons to believe these can develop into something substantial, he said.

Both sides are interested in finding alternatives to fossil fuels and both have pretty advanced research communities. And while Israel doesn’t generate the biomass that Canada does, with its significant agricultural and forestry industries, it does have a sophisticated agricultural technology sector, he said.

Hadar, a professor of microbiology at Hebrew U, said “two of the most significant challenges to humanity in the 21st century will be fossil fuel limitations and the effect on climate change.” With recent scientific breakthroughs in understanding plant genomics, new possibilities have emerged for exploiting plant biomass. “A more sustainable and bio-based society is now a realistic possibility. In a bio-based economy, feedstock will be produced from renewable bio-resources while economic growth will be linked to sustainable development,” he said.

Hadar said the purpose of the workshop was “to promote, facilitate and support collaboration and exchange of innovative ideas related to responsible and sustainable conversion of biomass to biofuels and bio-products toward building a viable society.”

The two-day workshop brought together Canadian and Israeli experts from universities, government and industry. The main topics discussed were crop production (breeding, genetics and genomics); biomass utilization, including forest and municipal waste; and policy, economics and intellectual property.

No agreements were signed or partnerships created at the seminar, but Hadar is hopeful the meetings will “create one-on-one conversations and start the exchange of ideas and hopefully, lead to collaboration.”