Sask. fermentation facility puts specialized microbes to work

Phillip Stephan, vice-president of strategic initiatives at the Saskatchewan Research Council, explains the fermentation process at the SRC fermentation pilot plant in Saskatoon. Computers monitor the levels of gases produced during the fermentation of different materials.  |  Brian Cross photo

Microbes can be used in the mining, oil and gas sectors

When most people hear the word fermentation, they think about products of fermentation that are known and loved around the world, namely fine wines and beer.

Researchers at the Saskatchewan Research Council have a slightly different perspective.

When they hear the word fermentation, they think about industrial applications and the development of highly specialized microbial products that are used in the agriculture, health, mining and oil extraction industries.

“The industrial application of microbial systems offers tremendous opportunity to heal, feed and fuel the world,” said Phillip Stephan, SRC’s vice-president of strategic initiatives.

“But there are very few facilities in a position to enable the development, demonstration and commercialization of microbial technologies.”

The SRC and the National Research Council announced a strategic partnership July 13 that will allow co-management of the SRC’s state-of-the-art fermentation facility at Innovation Place in Saskatoon.

The fermentation facility has been around since the late 1990s and has assisted with the development of ground-breaking products and processes. For example, work conducted at the facility played a key role in establishing the province’s grain ethanol industry and improving its production processes. It also helped develop agricultural inoculants that improved crop yields.

As well, it helped develop animal vaccines and plant inoculants, and in conjunction with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, conducted critical work during the Canadian BSE crisis more than a decade ago.

Going forward, researchers at the facility see growing opportunities in the mining and oil and gas sectors. They believe fermentation can be used to develop specialized microbial products capable of removing toxic substances from mine tailings and oil industry byproducts.

There is even the potential to develop products that will improve crude oil extraction processes by reducing the costs of extraction processes and minimizing their environmental impact.

In a nutshell, the partnership be-tween SRC and NRC will help the facility more closely work with private industry and develop new products that are more effective and more environmentally friendly.

The two councils are already talking about the potential for expansion in the event that the demand for fermentation services grows beyond the facility’s capacity.

The other publicly operated fermentation facility in Canada that offers similar capabilities is located in Alberta. However, the Alberta facility is a larger operation, and the services it offers are aimed at a different segment of the market.

“The sharing (between SRC and NRC) of this world class fermentation facility right here in the middle of Saskatchewan’s biotech cluster will continue to enable the transition of basic research into applies technology and true innovation,” said Stephan.

Added Roman Szumski, the NRC’s vice-president of life sciences: “This partnership will allow us to provide service to Canadian companies working on bio-based specialty chemicals and specialty health products and those that are looking to transform biomass into valuable products.”

SRC president Laurier Schramm said the partnership will give the fermentation experts at the Saskatoon facility access to complementary lab facilities and expertise at NRC’s operations in Saskatoon and Montreal.

“There are capabilities that we already have at SRC, but we need the resources of another partner to be able to take significant steps in a reasonable period of time,” he said.

Shramm said 75 to 85 percent of the work conducted at the fermentation facility is contract research and de-velopment, conducted for private sector industries or other government agencies or consortiums.

Much of the work conducted at the facility is aimed at scale-up projects that have already been proven at the laboratory level but are not yet ready for large-scale industrial production.

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