The Puzzling Paradox of Agri-Waste: Assembling the Pieces for a Circular Bioeconomy

David Bressler, Associate Dean of Research CNAS, ALES Prof. at U of A, and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor, pieces together energy, food and agriculture, forestry, jet fuel, and waste

Posted: Nov 14, 2023

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David Bressler Blog

David Bressler, Associate Dean of Research CNAS, ALES Prof. at U of A, and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor, pieces together energy, food and agriculture, forestry, jet fuel, and waste

By Tabitha Caswell for Bioenterprise

At first glance, Dr. David Bressler’s work might appear disconnected and chaotic, like a box of 10,000 jigsaw pieces dumped in a heap on the floor. But in the world of biorefining and sustainable energy, this puzzle aficionado has a knack for making complex brainteasers seem like child’s play.

Games aside, his motivation is steadfast and earnest, with outcomes focused on designing a circular economy supported by sustainable processes for handling waste, preventing it from being burned or thrown into landfills, and creating value for all players on every team involved, from start to finish.

On his mission to solve major environmental issues, this savvy interdisciplinarian fits together the pieces by way of both discovery and applied sciences. Here, as a revered member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) with Bioenterprise, Dr. Bressler graciously shares insight from his world where academia, industry, and government collide.

Left Turn at Edmonton

David’s story begins at the crossroads of energy and agriculture, in the heart of northern Alberta, home of the Athabasca Oil Sands and the epicenter of Canada’s beef industry, known for its rich history of oil and farming.

Leaving his hometown of Grande Prairie for Edmonton, David’s sights were set on pre-med, but the tether tying him to his roots proved strong, pulling him off that path and in the direction of industrial microbiology. Studying at the University of Alberta (U of A), he earned an Honors Bachelor of Science Degree in Cell Biology, followed by a PhD in Microbiology and Biotechnology.

During his two years as Research Manager at U of A, David taught Chemical and Materials Engineering while working in tandem with Syncrude Research, then landed as Associate Dean of Research with the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences (ALES) from 2019 to 2022. Currently he’s fulfilling a three year term as Associate Dean, STEM Research for the College of Natural and Applied Sciences (CNAS) at the U of A.

Through his role in the Biorefining Conversions and Fermentation Laboratory (Bressler Lab), David strikes a balance, building programs that enable his team to navigate various disciplines, tackle a variety of industrial challenges, chase curiosities, and foster learning opportunities and growth for all.

Science for a Circular Economy
Agricultural and food-producing processes often generate unusable by-products, or wastes. In the Bressler lab, David and his team investigate ways to transform these common farm and forestry by-products into chemicals, fuels, and other valuable products. To achieve this, the team focuses on discovering novel methods, while enhancing existing methods at the same time. The goal? To create optionality for a circular economy.

Their work aims to push further, answering the question: how do we maximize value in these by-product streams and ensure economic return to the producers? To answer this question, the research integrates different scientific fields and builds on techniques developed from biology, chemistry, and heat.

“We look at low-value by-product streams from ag and forestry, and work to upgrade, or convert them,” David says. He achieves diversification by using a time-tested strategy: divide and conquer.

The 25-member team is divided into three groups. One is focused on converting oils and fats into hydrocarbon fuels and solvents, another works on protein waste materials from the rendering industry, and the last group concentrates on fermentation to produce specialty chemicals for commercial applications.

Their projects range from the development of renewable fuels and high-performance biomaterials to other green, low carbon solutions. And lately, the team places an emphasis on the commercial aviation industry. David says, “While we’re working with many irons in the fire, jet fuel is by far the biggest.”

Green Skies Ahead

International governing bodies have placed the aviation sector under pressure to meet worldwide emission reduction targets. This situation has made jet fuel a priority for researchers like David, given its significant contribution to global CO2 emissions.

The Bressler Lab is heavily involved. David provides context, saying “Over the past four years, we’ve just closed off a $7.2 million grant, with a massive team and numerous collaborators supporting our infrastructure.” They’ve partnered with CanmetENERGY in Devon, Alberta to develop catalysts, providing support via analytics and external third party testing.

Biofuels serve as a greener alternative, reducing the carbon footprint of air travel. Furthermore, with the finite nature of fossil fuels, biofuels present a renewable energy source, promising a sustainable and potentially steadier supply of fuel for the aviation sector. Crucially, it’s also important to note that the raw materials used in biofuel production processes are not diverted from primary food or feed resources, meaning they’re not “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” 

Avoiding the Zero-Sum Game       

Some critics caution that our quest for new fuels could create a paradox, jeopardizing our precious food and forestry industries. David disagrees. From his perspective, the idea of utilizing top-notch, high quality food components for industrial applications is illogical.

“In our renewable fuel projects, we focus on low-value products like brown greases and the conversion of methanol feedstocks from waste product pyrolysis. We’re working to utilize cellulose from tree and plant leftovers, and down the road we aim to use oleaginous algae and yeasts capable of fermenting sugars into fats and oils,” David says. Essentially, new systems will deliberately generate waste products for use in fuel production.

He adds that for industries such as aviation, biofuels remain the sole viable solution option for the next two to three decades, necessitating high-volume solutions from novel feedstocks to satisfy demand. “Debates over food versus fuel bring up studies on the impacts of energy on agriculture, leading to higher food prices and storage costs. But we don’t intend to compete for resources like canola or palm oil because those don’t offer sustainable long-term solutions,” David says.

David acknowledges these concerns but points out that they are not what is standing in the way of progress; rather, the greatest obstacle is time.

Beating the Clock
In light of recent technological advances, it’s easy to overlook the fact that significant systemic change doesn’t happen overnight. David notes that, “Historically, in the petrochemical sector, the value pathways we see today took a century to optimize and mobilize. Integrating biofuels into mainstream solutions will take at least 20 to 25 years.”

We’re roughly 10 to 15 years deep, and while it’s true that the implementation of ethanol is gaining mainstream acceptance, we’re just now reaching a point where platforms can scale for impact from the groundwork that’s been laid. 

What’s more, he says, “Unfortunately, with government cycles lasting three to five years, new programs often launch when they’re cool and trendy, creating unrealistic expectations of building an entire industry out within a single election cycle. That just doesn’t work – not in agriculture, not in processing. Such rapid development is impractical and programs like these require sustained campaigns over multiple decades to move in the right direction.”

When discussing government and systems-level change, we must address another important topic: funding.

Hedging Bets

Funding, whether from private industry or government, is crucial for innovative research. Money makes the magic happen, but its allocation raises questions. How is the money allocated? How does a researcher plan a solid path? According to David, success hinges on aligning with the right trends at the opportune moment.

Sometimes luck is involved – for example, when COVID hit, everyone rushed to fund vaccine development. As well, sharpening your communication skills and staying attuned to buzzwords and emerging trends can boost your chances and increase your odds. David says, “If you happen to be in the wheelhouse of an area that society is paying attention to, it’s easy; but if you’re working in an esoteric area where government and industry have a hard time understanding how they might benefit, then the onus is on you to explain it, to articulate and win the buy-in. And if you can’t do that, well then, you could remain confined in a very fundamental space.”

He elaborates by saying that some researchers secure initial funding and settle into a comfortable niche for a few years, only to find themselves at a loss when the funding dries up. Such moments can feel paralyzing for some, but David’s adaptability keeps him and his team nimble. He’s not averse to change and he’s poised to pivot. He says, “I think interdisciplinary work can unlock opportunities for funding from multiple sources. And if you’re responsive to the different needs of industry, and meet those needs with good science, you’re in a favourable position.”

He adds that, regardless of trends, and contrary to some beliefs, both industry and government do want the best science. Dr. Bressler has strategically primed his lab for success by providing reliable, robust design and control systems for sound data, and by diversifying their tech and offering optionality.

The Evolution of Tech

The Bressler Lab is equipped to deploy a range of tools like fermentation, enzymes, high temperature free radical chemistry, and catalytic chemistry. This versatility allows them to tackle problems creatively from different angles. They also leverage the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Dr. Bressler steps back to contemplate the breakneck speed at which these innovations have evolved, “In my lifetime, as an academic we used to talk about the industrial revolution, and about microchips and Moore’s Law, and the explosive growth of the IT industry; lately we talk about the way computer processing power has unlocked new technologies. Now we can work in nano and manipulate matter at a quantum level and understand the data and process it. With machine learning and recent advances in genetics, we’re just scratching the surface of what’s coming. The pace at which some of this work is being done now was unheard of when I was a grad student!”

The implementation of machine learning undoubtedly enhances data analysis in the life sciences. While integrating agriculture, food systems, and forestry, we’ll soon see the efficient and intelligent design of new comprehensive biomass systems that incorporate all moving parts at once. Dr. Bressler already witnesses the evolution of computing via his collaborative work on a regular basis.

Splitting the Stakes

As David and his team seek practical solutions to reduce the carbon footprint in targeted industries, they aim their focus on scalable applications with sensible market potential. And he emphasizes these applications hinge on healthy partnerships.

“Collaboration isn’t optional. You can accomplish great things on your own, but involving multiple stakeholders promotes a sense of shared ownership, and this is when things can become much more creative. In business, industry, or academia, progress stems from interpersonal trust relationships. With mutual trust, great things happen,” he says.

David explains how committed parties bring different skill sets, and this keeps projects dynamic, advancing through the input of diverse experts weighing in with valuable perspectives. Over the years he’s been engaged through various affiliations like the Biomass Energy Network (BEN) and the Biorefining Conversions Network (BCN), uniting the best minds across pertinent sectors.

Private industry partners such as Novozymes and Sanimax have effectively capitalized on the R&D spawning from these think tanks, while new offspring entities have directly emerged from their innovations. With backing from investors like Shell Ventures and Lockheed Martin, FORGE Hydrocarbons showcases Dr. Bressler’s revolutionary biomass refining technology, successfully converting oils and fats into full-octane gasoline and diesel fuels.

Collaborations not only foster knowledge and expertise, but they also open doors to funding opportunities. A case in point is First Green Partners where Dr. Bressler served for three years. This $350 million-dollar early-stage U.S. venture capital investment firm focused on backing companies commercializing green tech.

David’s invaluable philosophy and insights on networking directly transfer to entrepreneurs and students aspiring to work in the bio-industrial and ag-tech sectors.

Inspiring Future Masterminds

Dr. Bressler offers a wealth of guidance and advice to help prospective students to find their way academically. He advocates for a proactive, hands-on approach and urges students to do their due diligence, reach out, and connect with professors and professionals in the field. He emphasizes that educators are approachable and willing to assist students who demonstrate genuine interest. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get – be bold enough to ask,” he advises, encouraging students to embrace risk, maintain humility, and pursue their passions.

For budding entrepreneurs, David highlights the abundance of opportunities and programs available across Canada. He urges young engineers, scientists, and business professionals to proactively forge relationships, either directly with companies or via development organizations such as Bioenterprise, which provides a platform for young innovators to access industry networks and funding opportunities they’re looking for.

The journey to sustainability still has many challenges to overcome and gaps to fill. It is a collective effort, and it requires the ingenuity and dedication like we see in Dr. Bressler.

From the fertile and rugged terrain of northern Alberta to his lab, a bustling hub of research and technology, he’s worked to build an impressive career. His remarkable accomplishments mirror his mission, fueled by an insatiable curiosity and an unwavering commitment to creating positive change. The impact of his work resonates from his community in Alberta, across Canada, and around the world. Yet Dr. Bressler’s journey, a 10,000-piece mosaic, is still unfinished – the full picture of it yet to be revealed.

As he continues to lead the way towards a successful circular bioeconomy, Dr. Bressler inspires us all to imagine big, solve boldly, and work collaboratively with purpose and passion to achieve great goals. Together we can continue to work toward solutions for a sustainable future, ensuring innovation and resilience for generations to come.

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