Sask. researcher finds alternative fuel in province's agricultural leftovers

A Saskatchewan researcher has created a recipe for canola meal pellets that could render them a biofuel for everyday uses like heating homes.

Canola meal pellets another way to reduce fossil fuel demand, researcher says

Pellets from canola meal, a byproduct from the processing of canola oil, could become the next biofuel, according to a Saskatchewan researcher. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

A University of Saskatchewan researcher has composed a recipe that could put some of the millions of tonnes of leftover canola meal produced in Canada to use in a holistic way: as biofuel. 

Professor Ajay Dalai, the Canada research chair of bio-energy and environmentally friendly chemical processing, has been considering how to mimic the forestry sectors use of pellets as a biofuel in the province's vast agricultural industry, which has ample supply. 

It would generate an invaluable alternative source of biofuel from leftover materials from canola production.

"Canada exports about $300 million worth of pellets [from forestry] to Japan, USA and U.K. and few other countries," Dalai said. 

"Why can't we do the same thing for agricultural materials to bring some revenue to our [local] farmers?"

Canola-based biofuel is already in circulation by blending canola oil with diesel fuel for vehicles. Dalai's process, of creating pellets from canola meal to replace coal and oil in things like heating homes, is another avenue to use canola for fuel.

That's especially applicable to Saskatchewan, which accounts for nearly half (about 47 per cent) of crop fields in Canada, according to a Statistics Canada report in 2017. Canola was the largest crop sown in the province, covering more than 11 million acres in 2016. 

Dalai said that Canada produced 18 million tonnes of canola meal in 2019. About 10 million tonnes of it was from Saskatchewan. 

After the canola oil is squeezed from the crop, about 40 per cent of the meal is fed to livestock and some is exported. The remainder, about 50 per cent of the meal leftovers, could be used for pellet production, he said. 

Dalai's challenge was creating pellets that can withstand storage and transportation without swelling or crumbling, and becoming unusable. 

He had to consider energy density, mechanical strength and water resistance (also known as hydrophobics). Dalai said his recipe takes all of these into account. 

Replacing fossil fuels

Part of what drives Dalai is the economic possibilities — that exporting can be expensive and keeping the products in the province could be beneficial. 

Another driver is the province's reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy, as that source is limited.

About 83 per cent of electricity in the province is drawn from fossil fuels, according to the Canada Energy Regulator.

"Eventually we'll run out of fossil fuels. We are phasing out oil gradually, for home heating, for transportation, for industry; we have to rely on alternative sources, including bioenergy," he said. 

"That is not only for us, but for the next generation and generations down the road. So, if you can contribute a small part to this … I think that's really good for everyone."

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend