Shift by Alberta Innovates

From fats to fuels with Dr. David Bressler

July 11, 2022 Dr. David Bressler Season 3 Episode 10
Shift by Alberta Innovates
From fats to fuels with Dr. David Bressler
Show Notes Transcript

We met with Dr. David Bressler while at Inventures on June 2, 2022. We spoke to him about his work converting lipids into hydrocarbons (biofuel), his role with Forge Hydrocarbons and about what an event like Inventures means for Alberta researchers and innovators.

Learn more about Dr. Bressler's work.

Dr. David Bressler, Professor, Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Alberta

Dr. Bressler is appointed with the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences where he is a Full Professor and the Associate Dean (Research).  He earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology and Cell Biotechnology from the University of Alberta.  Following his studies, David held a two-year Research Manager position, under Dr. Murray Gray.  The position, which included the instruction of two senior courses per year in Chemical and Materials Engineering (University of Alberta), also included an office and weekly participation at Syncrude Research. 

Shift by Alberta Innovates focuses on the people, businesses and organizations that are contributing to Alberta's strong tech ecosystem.

Jon:                     Humans are energy consumers. With projections suggesting the global population to eclipse 10 billion by 2050, we need to produce more of it in a sustainable fashion. The notion of a circular economy includes the creation of value from waste. Our next guest is doing just that with his work converting lipids into fuels. Sit back, lean in, and welcome to Shift.

David:                 I'm Dave Bressler. I'm an associate dean researcher actually at the University of Alberta, in the faculty of agricultural life, environmental sciences. I'm a researcher that works in the bio-industrial space, and I'm the technology founder behind the company FORGE Hydrocarbons.

Jon:                     FORGE hydrocarbons, and your research was to take lipids and fats and convert them to jet fuels, biofuels.

David:                 Yeah.

Jon:                     Tell us a little bit about that.

David:                 The original technology, this has evolved over the last two decades actually, the original technology was looking at insights and technology similar to the oil sands actually, and upgrading coking in Alberta and looking at ways of converting oils and fats into hydrocarbon fuels that are actually true hydrocarbons compatible with gasoline and diesel fuel. That was really the first incarnation of the technology that's been commercialized. Now over the last three or four years, really the push has been on to transform the technology and find pathways to... Instead of making it into diesel fuel, actually upgrading it into bio jet fuel, which is one of those areas that are going to be a long term solution for decarbonization.

Jon:                     Right. Now where are you guys at with that?

David:                 Over the last three years, with investments from Alberta Innovates, Western Economic Diversification, now PrairiesCan and NRCan, the federal agency. There was about a $7.2 million program working between our labs, collaborators and mechanical engineering and NRCan, CanmetENERGY and Devon to look at transforming that technology with FORGE as a partner. Where we are over the three years is we've taken two different pathways working with the two groups that both pathways have shown very good progress along the way, to the extent that FORGE, working in conjunction with us, was able to compete in the Sky's the Limit challenge, which is part of the mission innovation kind of global energy transformation. They were awarded $2 million as a finalist in that competition. They ended up not winning in the very end, but they were a close runner up for the large prize that was announced at Global recently

Jon:                     $2 million prize. That's not so bad. It helps.

David:                 No, it definitely helps move, as they look [inaudible 00:02:53] The first round of the technology is being built up in Sombra, Ontario. The reason it's being built there is it's an old World Energy site, or Biox, at one time. It's got 72 rail car support as a brown field build. It's the quickest way to test out that. I would call it a demonstration slash commercial facility. We're looking at where to place plant two already in incorporating the jet fuel. It's gone to the extent that actually Biogen is probably coming more the focal point for FORGE than even the original conceptions, just because of the opportunity and the success we've made so far.

Katie:                  All this is derived from lipids?

David:                 Yes. The tech... Sorry.

Katie:                  No, I was just going to say, help me out here. How much availability is there of lipids?

David:                 Okay. The two things about this technology, as we said, it's based out of oil, so that's coking. The technical way of describing it is we reject a little bit of carbon so that we can get the nice hydrocarbons. Whereas traditionally, what they would do is treat with hydrogen and catalyst and upgrade and use hydrogen. That has implications in terms of carbon efficiency and carbon reduction, but because we do it that way, we can use a lot uglier feed stocks, if that makes sense. They don't have to be very pure. There's no catalyst to be eliminated. It's a lot lower capital cost to build a plant. We can scale it to whatever lipid resources available at the place. The first generation of the technology is looking at brown greases and ugly stuff from rendering that has the lowest value. Because we're not worried about keeping it perfectly clean for catalysts or anything.

                            The second generation is looking at upgrade canolas and other stuff that are not headed for the food place. Really the long term target of this space of this technology is... Tim Hag is the founding CEO of FORGE. We spun it over the university. Tim was the CEO of Biox, which was rolled into World Energy. He's come over to set up FORGE as an Alberta based startup, is actually the headquarters. Tim is also affiliated with another company called Mar renewables, which is affiliated or a spin out of Ocean Nutrition in eastern Canada. They've developed a single cell algo system that's able to convert lignocellulosic sugar into lipids. If you see where this is going, they take the trees, break them down, ferment them into lipids. Of that lipid, what's unique about that organism is a big chunk of the lipids are omega-3. They've got ultra high application into a food marketplace. They're already producing and selling into that place. As that scales up, there's going to be an enrichment. The lipids that are not omega-3, you need to find a valid use for them, and that's where it aligns with FORGE as a sister company.

                            While Mar is growing up and going commercial on that front and improving their technologies, FORGR itself, the first investor was Renewable Energy Group, one of the biggest companies in North America in biodiesel and renewable fuels. It was compounded by investments by Lockheed Martin. Obviously that's a big player in the jet space. We had Shell Global come on a few years ago, and that actually slowed things down as you're getting up to their engagement in the scale up. More recently World Energy was in as well, which is another major player in North America. Finally, just this year, Chevron bought out Renewable Energy Group. Now the board is a former UOP CEO, and then you've got Shell and you've got basically Chevron through REG sitting on the FORGE board.

Jon:                     That's some heavies.

David:                 It isn't isolated startup company so much, even though they haven't sold dollar one yet, it's being built out as part of that ecosystem.

Commercial:      We're just going to take a wee break for some station identification and talk about some friends of ours over at Rainforest Alberta and their podcast. Leaders, innovators, and big ideas. The Rainforest Podcast showcases those who are contributing to and/or supporting the innovation ecosystem in Alberta. Rainforest Alberta is a world class community of dreamers and doers connected by a common goal of making Alberta fertile ground for building, developing and growing innovative ideas into sustainable ventures. Now, let's get back to Dr. David Bressler on Shift.

Jon:                     When do you envision that selling dollar one?

David:                 We've got all our permits for the plant at Sombra. The site has been prepped. We've got one more. Shell is one more pilot run on one of the unit ops in the U.S. that will go in the next couple months. All the permitting is in place. The municipal sign off, all the water, all that is in place environmental. We're prepared to start, hopefully building later this year and then operational for the next year or two.

Jon:                     Excellent.

David:                 On plant one, I'm working hard with others to look at plant two in Alberta. There are places like the Edmonton Airport Authority and other partners in the province that are looking at the opportunity to bring the technology here.

Katie:                  What's the economic value of hydrocarbons from lipids?

David:                 In terms of... Sorry, what do you mean by economic value?

Katie:                  What is it worth in the market? What is the projected market value?

David:                 If you talk about a per liter volume, lipids traded roughly a little bit more than $1 a liter, we'll say. Fuels, you know where the fuel prices are going, and you can probably benchmark where they are per liter, but because of the carbon reduction in the carbon trading, as we look at renewable fuels, they're mandated into the ecosystem. The hydrocarbon in the world has no choice but to figure out ways to reduce carbon. Technologies like FORGE, you're talking in the ballpark of 15% to 20% of the carbon footprint. That's before bringing in Mar and other pathways to get to the Lipids. The jet is trading, I think it's somewhere in the ballpark of $15 a liter. Renewable...

Jon:                     That's jet fuel.

David:                 Yeah. Diesel fuels I think. Don't quote me on any of this, around the $8 per liter. If you're talking about economies that are billions of liters in that space, there's a huge market opportunity. As you know, technologies are working in the conversion and FORGE and others are scaling. People are also working on feed stocks equally. It creates long term opportunities there.

Jon:                     When you think about Alberta as a province and a knowledge sector, we look at obviously oil and gas, obviously agriculture. Now we're seeing quantum and artificial intelligence were becoming mainstays for that. When we think about your lab and the work you're doing, this is pretty cutting edge stuff. In terms of the world status, where do you guys fit in all of that?

David:                 I think the way I would look at it... I'll back up. From about 2009 to 2015 I was running something called the Biorefining Conversion Network. It was Alberta Innovate funded through the transformation. Really we were looking at the interface of oil and gas, renewables, bio, ag, forestry, and putting the ecosystem together over those years. It was very robust then even. We lost focus in that area a little bit, but our forestry industry still remains strong. Alberta has a few ecosystems, obviously health has been there and is rising. The AI and the artificial intelligence are rising. As an associate dean research. My job is smart ag and that interface as well. Where Alberta is really unique is we have the ability to work with small companies right to major multinationals. We've got that experience.

                            What our competitive advantage is, we've got a highly educated workforce. We've got great regulatory rules and responsibility. We get social license from a lot of that, both regionally and globally. At the end of the day, we will always be a resource based economy or have that to draw. I'm not saying our whole economy's based on it, but it's pretty nice to go into the poker game with a bunch of Aces in your pocket compared to other jurisdictions that do not have that resource to draw. As we work on diversifying all of these other opportunities, the one thing that people can't take away is the agricultural resource, the forestry resource. Those, as where our lab sits is kind of that interface. You ask where our lab sits, we collaborate with Australia, Germany, Brazil. Every country has their push in this kind of renewable Bioindustrial spaces.

                            We're well connected and represented and acknowledged in those spaces. I don't know if we're above or below, but we work well with all the above. The phrase around the Bioindustrial, the renewable fuels, renewable chemicals, renewable materials that we work in, all these fronts is... We're at a state in our society where all... The rising tide lifts all books. It isn't really a competitive ecosystem, or at least it shouldn't be where companies are putting down other companies. We need a lot of solutions and we need them fast. The markets we're talking about in this space are so large. It's not like some other sectors where people are competing to out compete and eliminate everybody else and own the space. When you're talking about energy, or you're talking about fuels, or you're talking about materials, the people that own the resources are going to get benefit as they're transformed into the things we need.

                            The focus has been on energy and rightfully so, and food is right there. But following that right behind is, we're still going to need the things that we need to survive. Our materials, our chemicals, all the things we use for all our consumer goods are always going to be there. They're all sitting there ready for Alberta, Western Canada to take in terms of the greening and the sustainability arguments that we can bring to the space. I don't know if I answered your question.

Jon:                     No, no. That's...

David:                 ... Or if I went off on a rant, but that's point of where we are.

Jon:                     No, that's good. That's great. As a final question, what does an event like this mean to you as a researcher, as an entrepreneur?

David:                 I've been doing this for 20 years in Alberta, and like I said, I ran a network and it was kind of bringing... We have an event and bring 150 people together and some business, government, academia, and foster those trust relationships. This is out on infinite steroids where you've got all of the entrepreneurs, the ecosystems, but it's not just regional. You're pulling people from Australia, globally. You're bringing the right concoction of the inventors, the creators, the entrepreneurs and then the investors and the angels and the VCs. You're creating that soup where people are building trust relationships, making introductions, and you're starting to create an ecosystem that starts feeding upon itself and creating more value. I think these are invaluable events. I wish they were here 20 years ago when I started some of the stuff with FORGE. I think we're headed in the right direction and we're drawing a lot of attention.

Jon:                     Awesome. David, thank you. Shift can be found online at, or email us at Shift On behalf of everyone here. I'm Jon. Until next time, have a great day.