The Drayton Valley Bio-Mile

Hard times inspire a futuristic biocluster in Canada
| December 28, 2010

The first part of the Drayton Valley Bio-Mile’s story is nothing out of the ordinary. Around 2008, things for the small community of Drayton Valley, Alberta, were looking pretty bleak. The shutdown of an OSB plant, costing the town nearly 500 jobs and 12 percent of the tax base, didn’t help. For a town of 7,000, that’s huge, says Mayor Moe Hamdon. But after searching for a way to save the community, Hamdon and his team decided the best way back to prosperity was to use the vast resources surrounding the town: oil and gas, forestry and agriculture. “Economic development happens from two drivers,” Hamdon says. “Desperation or inspiration.Clearly, the beginning was desperation.”

The answer for Hamdon was what is now called the Drayton Valley Bio-Mile, an industrial cluster based on a single premise; one person’s waste (or industry in this case) can be another person’s input. The goal is to take wood fiber and plant-based biomass from the surrounding region and facilities, and produce a wide array of products including traditional sawmill products, electricity, plastics and resins, cellulosic fuel, synthetic natural gas, biobased chemicals and more. The one-square-mile area will partner with a Weyerhaeuser sawmill and the Valley Power cogeneration facility. In its completion, Hamdon says, the site will feature a power plant, a greenhouse, a research center, a biochar facility that could make green chemicals, and other technology to produce renewable fuel. “The agricultural community will also be involved with purpose-grown crops,” he says. Wood waste from the mill will be used for electricity and steam generation, which can then be used to make syngas, and from there, renewable fuel and biobased chemicals, depending on the technology used.

“When you look at the sustainability aspect of it and what we hope to achieve, it is something that excites a lot of people,” Hamdon says. And he’s right. The Bio-Mile has already received support from both the federal and provincial governments. As for partners, the list includes CLIB2021, a German-based bioindustrial consortium that has chosen Drayton Valley as the site for its first North American headquarters, where the group will study cellulosic fuels and biochemicals; Otoka Energy, a biomass-to-energy company that has plans to set up a power plant in 2011; TTS Inc., a research and development firm that is planning to bring two 30,000-square-foot fiber-mat facilities to the Bio-Mile; Weyerhaeuser Co.; the University of Alberta; and a slew of others.

Hamdon says if a person drove by the Bio-Mile today, there wouldn’t be as much to see as there will be in another year. But even that will just be the beginning, says Hamdon. “Our vision sees it (that square mile) going beyond its borders.”  

—Luke Geiver