Prof. Rob Nicol, Environmental Sciences, studies ways to harness crops to feed us and our bioeconomy. Photo by Rebecca Kendall

Environmental sciences professor Rob Nicol knows his idea is heresy in some quarters. Grow food not only to feed the world but also to make fuels, chemicals and other products? Isn’t that the kind of practice that can give the bio-economy a bad name?

You can almost hear him shaking his head all the way along the phone line to U of G’s Ridgetown Campus, where he’s been a faculty member in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) since 2007.

Yes, many people frown on the idea of diverting food crops for non-food uses, says Nicol. But he believes the argument is more nuanced than that. If anything, he says his idea meshes with the “think local” mantra favoured by the growing green-conscious movement.

Here in this part of the world, including Ridgetown — the “tropics of Canada,” he says — there’s plenty to go around. That was the point of a talk he gave last week in Guelph during a Café Scientifique event hosted by SES. “Yes, it’s fine in southern Ontario,” he says. “We’ve got lots of crops and a relatively small population.”

He knows that’s not the case in other parts of the world, but Nicol says that picture is often complicated by bigger political and food-distribution issues. Many countries have used land to grow commodities not to feed their own population but to earn export dollars. “You can’t blame biofuels for countries that don’t have enough food.”

His decentralized model relies on local sources of food and feedstocks. Think of grain growers who also raise pigs. How many of those farmers ship away their grain to market, only to buy grain back from that market to feed their livestock? Nicol advocates growing crops for food, making livestock feed and making biofuel for your tractor — all while cutting economic and environmental costs of shipping goods, including fuel for transportation.

Figuring out how to make the model work is where researchers like Nicol come in.

In one project, he’s working with students to compare life-cycle emissions of biodiesel and petroleum diesel. The former burns cleaner, with lower emissions of most contaminants, he says.

In another project, he’s looking at using microbes to perform anaerobic digestion of biomass, yielding biodiesel, methane or precursors for other green products. Use waste biomass that way and you could cut down on the need for landfill, a growing issue for larger centres such as Toronto that have to truck their wastes elsewhere.

Along with Guelph engineering professor Dave Lubitz, Nicol has a graduate student looking at using algae to clean up waste water and generate feedstocks for the lipid-to-biodiesel process. Another student at Ridgetown wants to use biodiesel waste itself to make chemical products.

Those projects involve more microbiology and lab techniques than the plant studies on Nicol’s résumé. Before arriving at Ridgetown, he had done a PhD in plant science at the University of Western Ontario, following earlier degrees in biology and environmental studies at the universities of Waterloo and Ottawa.

After working for a Boston biotech company and spending a year teaching at Western, he came to Ridgetown expecting to work in traditional plant biology. But he found researchers busy with the use of crops for bioenergy, biomass and chemicals.

“I decided to get involved because it seemed interesting,” he says, pointing to the larger goal of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. “The more we do now, the better off we’ll be in the future.”

Consider the billions of dollars we spend on fuel alone. “If we could capture a fraction here and leave it here, we’d all be doing a lot better. Infrastructure stimulus funding is fine, but if we could capture some of this money flowing elsewhere for our energy needs, it would be hugely transformative. It’s a big dream for me.”

Along with other Ridgetown faculty and researchers in local industry and government, Nicol belongs to the Centre for Agricultural Renewable Energy and Sustainability. Established in 2008, it conducts research, teaching, technology transfer and rural development in bioenergy and the bioeconomy.

Late last year, the centre commissioned a farm-scale biodiesel demonstration plant at Ridgetown to test ideas for agricultural products. The project was funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food program, which is delivered in Ontario by the Agricultural Adaptation Council.

Besides government and University funding, support for the project came from the Southwestern Ontario Bioproducts Innovation Network, an industry group.
That test plant will allow researchers to try out new uses for old and overlooked waste products. Imagine using hemp oil or recycled restaurant grease to make biodiesel — ideas that are already being tried on the market. How about using crops, including grasses, to make building materials for construction or greenhouse companies?

Those kinds of ideas could even benefit researchers like Nicol. He already gets decent mileage on his diesel Jetta during his hour’s drive between Ridgetown and his London home, but he figures he and his two carpooling partners could do better.

“My hope is to be filling up on locally produced biodiesel that came from a very short distance,” says Nicol, a self-described foodie who also aims to buy local at the grocery store.

At Ridgetown, he teaches in the bioresource management degree and environmental management diploma programs, and is now developing a renewable energy course.