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BIOFIBE 2011 Conference brings together industry leaders

SERIOUS players in the biomaterials and bioenergy fields from around the world have converged on Winnipeg for the three-day BioFibe 2011 conference.

The event has attracted participants from Europe, Asia, the United States and across Canada, including Ellen Lee, a technical expert in plastic research with the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The global industry may be in its early stages, but organizers characterize Manitoba's involvement in the field as nothing short of a bio revolution.

The province has a goal to generate $2 billion in annual revenue in the bioproducts field by 2020.

A focal point of that effort is the Composites Innovation Centre, co-sponsor of the event with the Life Sciences Association of Manitoba.

Sean McKay, executive director of the CIC, said good progress is being made developing the infrastructure that is required for widespread commercialization.

"This is a region that produces a lot of the flax and hemp in the country, which has some of the best fibre," McKay said. "If we can generate supply and get some manufacturers to process it into mat forms, then we can create an important rural economy."

An indication of the intensity of demand for biomaterials -- industrial products that use renewable materials, such as agricultural fibres to replace petroleum-based composites like fibreglass -- is that a decade ago engineers at Ford were not very receptive to the idea of replacing traditional vehicle parts with ones made with renewable or recycled materials.

Now, Ford engineers are so keen to introduce new sustainable technologies into their cars the biomaterials research team has to hold them off so they can finish all of the testing that's required.

And much of that demand is coming from consumers.

The CIC has partnered with all sorts of industry players in the aerospace and transportation industries to develop technologies using biofibres, as well as the technology required to produce parts made from such materials.

There are already about 30 companies engaged in research and development and production in Manitoba turning hemp, flax and wheat byproducts into paper, insulation, roofing tiles, biodegradable food packaging and ultra-lightweight components for the green-building-material and transportation sectors.

Ford's Lee, who is to address the BioFibre conference today, spoke at the University of Winnipeg Richardson College for the Environment and Science on Monday.

She said Ford has already implemented a soy-based foam product for seat cushions that has been included in the construction of three million vehicles. Ford calculates its use of soy foam reduces the company's oil usage by 1.3 million kilograms a year and eliminates nearly five million kilograms of CO2 emissions annually.

That project took close to 10 years to get to this stage.

The company has also just introduced a wheat straw-reinforced plastic storage container in the latest models of the Ford Flex.

Lee said Ford's goal is to increase the amount of renewable and recycled materials in its vehicles every year.

She said although Ford is seen as a leader in the field in the auto sector, it is really just getting started.

"Just this year, the company formed a sustainable materials steering committee," she said. "We are at the beginning of really trying to track what's going on."

Lee said in addition to the technological innovation that is required, there is always economic viability and high-quality standards that have to be met.

But she said one of the motivators for the company to introduce more biomaterials in its cars is consumer demand.

In addition to Lee, speakers at BioFibe 2011 will include a senior official with the Korean government's green policy, the president and CEO of the Ontario BioAuto Council and Burt Rutan, an entrepreneur who designed the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. Rutan has been described by Newsweek magazine as "the man responsible for more innovations in modern aviation than any living engineer."