BioAmber betting on Sarnia

By Paul Morden, from   The Observer

BioAmber has a lot riding on the $135-million plant it’s building on Vidal Street in Sarnia.

“It is paramount,” company vice-president Mike Hartmann said following a tour of the construction site.

“There is nothing more important to BioAmber than this facility.”

Work began late last year on 11 acres at the Lanxess Bio-industrial Park, and construction is expected to finish in early 2015 on the facility where BioAmber will turn high fructose corn syrup into bio-succinic acid, a platform chemical used in the making of plastics, cosmetics and other products.

“It will determine our success as a company, and all our focus is on Sarnia,” Hartmann said.

The plant will be the young company’s first production site in North America and set the stage for two additional plants it has already planned.

“But nothing gets done without Sarnia,” Hartmann added.

BioAmber, formed approximately six years ago, has been making bio-succinic acid at a facility in France using technology that originated in the 1990s with the U.S. Department of Energy. It announced in 2011 it would build a global-scale plant in Sarnia.

Since then, BioAmber has been developing and adjusting its plans, and putting financing in place through grants, government and commercial loans, partnerships and the stock market.

“Not often does a small company start from nowhere and end up building a huge, new disruptive technology that competes against incumbents extremely well,” Hartmann said.

As well as being a green technology with a negative carbon footprint, BioAmber’s corn-based succinic acid is cost-competitive with its petroleum-based competitors, the company says.

“Green is nice, and it’s important, but a lot of times customers won’t buy it if it’s more expensive,” Hartmann said.

Construction in Sarnia is on budget, and proceeding without any major issues, other than a few work days lost during the cold winter, he said.

A rare day of steamy high temperatures this week reduced the number of workers on site, but the mild summer has been a nearly perfect construction season, said health and safety manager Kelly Gulliford.

“If I was on vacation I wouldn’t be too happy . . . but for construction it has been amazing weather.”

Most of the siding is up on the office building and framing has been going up inside for offices, a large lab and a control room looking out on the process area.

Concrete bases are in place for the three large bio-converters that are part of the fermenting process that will begin in the lab and end at a warehouse where large bags of dry succinic acid will be trucked out.

“It looks like table salt,” Hartmann said.

The metal bio-converters are being manufactured in Sarnia at Kel-Gor and are expected to begin arriving soon at the site where they will be assembled in sections.

Steel for another section of the process area has been arriving and will be assembled quickly in the coming days, Gulliford said.

“You can smell the paint,” he said while walking by a fresh shipment of steel waiting to be unloaded.

“That was probably painted last night and then shipped here.”

The project has reached a point where changes and progress can been seen almost daily, he said.

Racks are already in place for pipes that will bring in steam from neighbouring Lanxess.

“Part of the reason BioAmber choose this site was because of the infrastructure,” Hartman said.

“We didn’t have to build our own boilers for steam. It’s very expensive to start from scratch.”

One of the biggest surprises for the company was the skilled labour, fabrication shops, and industrial construction experience it found in Sarnia-Lambton, Hartmann said.

“We didn’t realize the importance of it, as much as we do today.”

Along with an estimated 150 construction jobs, the plant is expected to employ 60 permanent workers when it’s up and operating.

Approximately 20 of those permanent workers have already been hired.

There are approximately 90 construction workers on site currently, and that number is expected grow in the coming weeks.

“We’re looking at 40 pipefitters and about the same for electricians,” Gulliford said.

“It’s going to be pretty significant here, pretty soon.”

Like other companies it is joining in Chemical Valley, BioAmber places an emphasis on safety; after more than 100,000 construction man hours so far, there have been no loss-time accidents.

“And hopefully, that continues,” Hartmann said.

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