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(Darran Barton/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Darran Barton/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

ENERGY

A cheaper way to turn flax into biodiesel Add to ...

A new year brings new ideas – or at least an opportunity for old ideas to be reworked.

Jon Dwyer, a 29-year-old entrepreneur and president of Toronto-based Flax Energy Corp., has big hopes that one day flax will provide fuel, food and fodder for the world. Canada produces 56 per cent of the world’s supply of the grain.

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Mr. Dwyer expects to announce early in this quarter that his company is the only one in the world to meet the stringent ASTM (American Standard Testing Materials) standards to create biodiesel fuel out of flax. He also anticipates earning a patent on the process this summer.

Neither of these developments will instantly turn the world on its head and provide a replacement for the oily petrochemical our world runs on. But “it means big prospects for the biodiesel industry, and for a little company like us,” Mr. Dwyer said.

Food and fodder have long been part of the flax arsenal. The addition of flax oil as biodiesel – in other words, fuel – is exciting, Mr. Dwyer says. It’s green energy and it’s sustainable.

Flax Energy’s cold-pressed process also avoids the use of chemicals. “We’re one of the only companies on our scale not using hexane to extract oil,” he said in an interview. Hexane is a hydrocarbon that has been identified by some studies as being harmful to people when exposed to it in high quantities, generally when inhaled.

Flax Energy instead processes the grain in food-grade stainless steel turbines, he explains. The turbine spins and drags the seeds through the machine. “It crushes the seed and organically heats it up, and the heat causes the flax seeds’ vessels to open up and yield the oil.”

Flax Energy, which maintains farms in Manitoba and Hamilton, Ont., sells most of its fuel to Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewing and the cities of Brampton and Mississauga. Trucks at the Toronto’s Rogers Centre will run on the biodiesel as well, Mr. Dwyer said.

“If we wish to replace oil, we need to find something that eats, breathes and lives like oil,” Mr. Dwyer told a recent symposium in Toronto. “Everything’s made of oil, even the parts of cars that run on electricity.”

Wind and solar power may replace coal as an energy source, but not the multiple uses of oil, he said.

Flax Energy’s oil also can be used in the manufacture of plastics, resins, cosmetics, rubber synthetics, adhesives, epoxy and jewellery. Flax oil becomes rancid when heated and isn’t a good choice for cooking, but it can be used in making linoleum and paint, he said.

The 60 per cent of the flax seed that is left – the meal – is cooled and milled into a flour-like product and sold as animal feed. Flax Energy is the largest flax animal feed provider in Eastern Canada. Chicken and beef sold as being rich in Omega 3 acid have been fed flax, Mr. Dwyer said.

Flax Energy, founded in 2008, built its own plant from scratch on the Toronto waterfront. It took 14 months, and the plant has been operational since September. It employs 12 people and sorts about 46 tons of flax seeds a day.

It’s still a small producer, overshadowed by U.S. manufacturers that use other sources – such as corn – to make biodiesel. “There are not a lot of producers in Canada. We hope to grow within the country and on an international scale.”

Money is scarce, said Mr. Dwyer, who nonetheless opposes government subsidies, calling them a hindrance to a company’s ability to work in a modern competitive market. “What we’ve done as a company is prove that sustainability doesn’t require government subsidies. We haven’t taken a cent of government money.”

Flax Energy’s expansion will focus first on Jamaica, where the price of diesel is about $1.60 a litre because of the country’s dependency on foreign oil. “We’re working with a group to locate in Jamaica and build a new facility that can run on flax seed oil, palm oil, waste vegetable oil – a variety of products.” The company hopes to have a shovel in the ground this year. It will also market its flax animal feed to nourish tilapia (fish) and shrimp in Honduras to produce high-Omega-3 seafood.

Mr. Dwyer also sees Europe – where diesel routinely tops $2.40 a litre – as a place for flax-related technology.

In North America, Flax Energy wants to dominate the feed markets in Ontario and Quebec and move into New York and Pennsylvania in the animal feed sector, and to grow in the pasta and baking sectors, Mr. Dwyer said. Canada remains a challenge, however.

“Canada’s a very difficult market to get attention if you’re doing something innovative on the manufacturing side,” he said. “We don’t seem to have an appreciation of manufacturing.”

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