Verschuren Centre a valuable resource in nurturing a green economy

Years ago in harder times, Nova Scotia fishermen buried their lobster shells after a feast. Nobody wanted their neighbours to think they’d been forced by cruel circumstance to eat their own catch. It was a poor person’s food, after all.

Today, lobster may be a more sophisticated and highly regarded dish, but the waste it generates — the shells and bodies — is still problematic. Over the years, industry has looked for ways to use lobster shells as natural pesticides and fertilizers, as additives in cosmetic products, pharmaceuticals and biomedical products.

Now a Cape Breton company has added one more use to that list. It involves an experimental process that it has developed with one of the province’s most unique innovation centres.

Copol International makes cast polypropylene films, a type of clear film used in the packaging industry, in its factory in the Northside Business Park in North Sydney. The company has been experimenting with biopolymers that can be incorporated into environmentally friendly packaging — packaging that contains antimicrobial properties for handling food.

“We wanted to try replacing the products we traditionally use with a biopolymer product from a natural source,” says Copal’s vice president of operations and general manager Denis Lanoë. “So we started doing some experiments with shrimp and lobster shells and also with seaweed.”

Copol turned to the Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment for help with research and development. The centre provided laboratory facilities, expert staff and a level of research and development expertise that Copol would have had difficulty matching on its own. “Working with the Verschuren Centre makes everything so much easier,” says Lanoë.

“They are flexible to work with, and they provide the expertise, the knowledge and the research facilities that we needed to develop the extraction process.”

The Verschuren Centre was created by Cape Breton University in 2009 — spearheaded by a donation from Cape Breton native Annette Verschuren. Verschuren grew up on her family’s dairy farm in rural Cape Breton before embarking on a stellar business career that would see her rise to the position of president of The Home Depot Canada and Asia.

As the new century dawned, the industrial age ground to a halt in Cape Breton and the biotech revolution began. The loss of the so-called “dirty industries” — coal-mining and steelmaking, mainly — was hitting many communities hard.

Verschuren’s vision was to create an institution that could help with
the transition –– one that could help fuel Cape Breton’s transformation into a green economy.

Today, the Verschuren Centre functions as a centre of excellence for commercially focused research and development in the cleantech sector. “Our goal is to accelerate the deployment of cleantech,” says Verschuren Centre president Beth Mason. “Developing cleantech is very capital-intensive, but at Verschuren, we can help build the technology so companies can scale up more rapidly.

“We don’t work with businesses who are at the ‘idea’ stage,” says Mason. “We work with companies that have gone through serious business acceleration; they usually have angel investors and strategic partners already in place.”

The Verschuren Centre concentrates on two areas of expertise: finding ways to decarbonize thermal storage, and replacing things made from petrochemicals with
more benign substances such as sugars, starches and methane. “A lot of green chemicals — bio-based dyes, therapeutics, industrial products –– can be produced from biomanufacturing,” says Mason.

The work at the centre is already having a major impact around the world. Cutting-edge research conducted by Dr. Martin Mkandawire, a CBU professor and former industrial research chair for mine water management at the Verschuren Centre, has led to the development of new ways to clean contaminated mines using nanotechnology sensors that act as chemical canaries in coal mines.

And AlterBiota, a company that has relocated to Sydney from Ontario, has worked with Verschuren to develop bio-graphene from wood waste that is used in concrete. It’s a significant development for that industry, which currently produces about seven per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Many of the companies that work with the Verschuren Centre are attracted by the facility’s bioreactor, which allows researchers to process materials using a variety of
reactions, including fermentation. In the last three years, the centre has worked with about 40 different companies, most of them from outside the province.

“We get companies through the pilot and scale-up phase of their operation,” says Mason. “Traditionally, there is not a lot of support out there for that phase. Because of the success of our scale-up model, we’ve gotten interest from all over North America.”

But there’s another carrot that’s just as appealing to companies trying to get ahead in the green tech world. “They don’t have to give up any control over their business,” says Mason. “We don’t touch IP. We’re here to help them grow, and we evolve along with them.”

For more information on how the Verschuren Centre is helping local companies develop sustainable solutions, check out their web page

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