August 23, 2018 – Paul Morden, The Sarnia Observer
Origin Materials’ demonstration plant planned for Sarnia is under construction, but just not where city residents are likely to see it yet.
The California-based bio-chemical company has been planning for more than a year to set up a “pioneer” plant on land at the Arlanxeo site in Sarnia to demonstrate its technology for producing bio-based chemicals for use in making plastic and other products.
The plant was announced in June 2017, along with an investment in the company through Sarnia-based Bioindustrial Innovation Canada’s Sustainable Chemistry Alliance fund.
“We’ve been fabricating and procuring all of the major pieces of equipment,” said John Bissell, CEO and co-founder of Origin Materials.
The plant is being constructed in modules being fabricated at sites around North America. Those modules will be shipped to the Sarnia plant site, which is an approximately 2-acre piece of land at Arlanxeo, next to Vidal Street.
Bissell said local civil, electrical and mechanical site construction work is expected to go out for bids in the next “couple of months.”
There are advantages to modular construction of a bio-chemical plant but one downside is that “you don’t end up getting the visual progression of the project, locally,” he said.
“A bunch of stuff happens off-site that you don’t see.”
Before the modules that will make up the plant are delivered, on-site work will be required to lay pipe and set up electrical connections and other site preparations.
“That will start pretty soon,” Bissell said.
“Once that’s largely complete, then the modules get delivered on-site, and those can go up quite quickly.”
The modules are expected to arrive over the course of approximately a month and will be set in placed by cranes and connected together.
The plant is expected to have the capacity to produce 15,000 tons of bio-chemicals annually.
Bissell said the company isn’t saying how much it expects the Sarnia plant will cost to build.
It is expected to begin operation in 2019.
“We’re a little bit behind where we originally were anticipating, but generally speaking everything is moving along nicely,” Bissell said.
The Sarnia pioneer plant is a “first-time project” for the company which has a pilot plant in California.
Provincial environmental approvals for storm water management, cooling water discharge and air emissions for the Sarnia site were posted recently at Ontario’s online Environmental Registry.
Bissell said the company continues to work its way through the needed national, provincial and local approvals.
Origin Materials uses bio-materials, such as sawdust, as its feedstock and in 2017 formed an alliance with Danone and Nestle Waters to develop and launch a PET plastic bottle made from 100 per cent sustainable and renewable bio-based materials.
“This is a really important plant for us,” Bissell said about the Sarnia project.
It is expected to provide much of the “proof of scalability” required to show the technology can be successful at a commercial scale, as well as produce commercial quantities of product customers can use to qualify its use with their production processes.
Bissell said the Sarnia plant will have the flexibility to operate in the future as a “kind of product and process development plant.”
Origin Material’s long-term plan, following the Sarnia project, is to build additional production plants but it hasn’t decided where.
“There are lots of locations that make sense,” Bissell said.
“We have our eye on a couple of difference spots, but we’re not a point where we need to pick, or that it would even be advantageous for us to pick.”
The Sarnia pioneer plant is expected to employ “a few dozen workers” and hiring is expected to begin “ramping up” later this year and early in 2019, he said.
Last year, Origin Materials moved a pilot plant into space at the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park and the company currently has approximately seven employees in Sarnia.
“We found great people in Sarnia,” Bissell said.
“I think we’ve been quite impressed.”
BioAmber opened a bio-chemical plant at the Arlanxeo site in 2015 but it’s currently going through liquidation. Montreal-based BioAmber ran into financial troubles shortly after starting up commercial production and in the spring it sought court protection.
Bissell said BioAmber’s experience hasn’t soured his company’s opinion of Sarnia.
“I think their process, folks that they had there, the location and the community – I think those were all great things,” Bissell.
“We certainly don’t view BioAmber’s challenges as related to them having located a plant in Sarnia, at all.”