High Fibre: Industry searches for new ways to use trees
The forestry industry already uses the entire tree, but still feels there are better products waiting to be discovered
by Peter Burrows
Until the 1970s, foresters considered poplar a weed – nobody had found a commercial use for it. But through the 1980s, industry, researchers and government worked at finding a profit in poplar. The most successful result of this was the development of oriented strand board, or OSB. To build OSB, you treat wood flakes with resins and waxes, put these in a thermal press and squeeze it all together while accompanied by heat. The glues set and the product hardens. OSB manufacturing in Alberta primarily uses poplar, and it’s not a niche product; it has replaced plywood in most homebuilding.
For as long as there has been forestry, companies have sought better and more profitable uses for the trees they cut. They have done so to develop new revenue streams, to reduce waste and to insulate themselves from the boom and bust of the lumber market. Their research and development efforts have gone so far as to create entirely new product lines and cut waste.
Indeed, by the end of the 1980s, the forestry industry in Alberta had reduced waste to zero; that is, every bit of biomaterial taken from the forest was being used. It remains so today: chips remaining after lumber is cut go to the pulp mill; some fibre ends up as OSB; the fine sawdust is molded into medium-density fibreboard, or MDF, which makes up the bulk of today’s window and door trim. Anything else left over can go into the mill’s boilers to generate electricity for its own use and, in some cases be sold back into the grid.
So what’s left to do? Today, the goal of many in the industry is to create new and different products that can add greater value to the wood and fibre taken from the forest. None of the new products are yet guaranteed to be profitable, but somewhere in all the research and development is the next OSB or MDF.
“A lot of the forestry industry in Canada is looking at innovative ideas that build on their core business,” says Geoff Clarke, a corporate planner with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Alpac). “They’re trying to evolve into something that is more diverse, creating multiple products, using more of the tree for higher-value uses.” He says he no longer considers Alpac’s facilities to be simply a sawmill or a pulp mill. They are now bio-refineries, applying science and technology to create products that can improve a company’s bottom line and further insulate it from economic uncertanties.
In Alpac’s case, that means cutting edge research. In one case, the company is trying to create bio-methanol out of waste from the pulping process. As pulpwood is turned into paper pulp, a product known as ‘black liquor’ is produced. Most black liquor is currently returned to a mill’s boilers to produce energy, but Clarke thinks there might be a more profitable use. “Methanol is trapped in the black liquor,” he says. “What we’re looking to do is take that methanol stream out of the waste, and purify it, to create a bio-methanol.” The goal is to be the first pulp mill in the world to produce commercial grade bio-methanol, to be used as a solvent, antifreeze or fuel.
Alpac is also providing feedstock to a cellulose nanocrystals pilot plant in Edmonton. Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) are in the cell walls of wood and other natural fibres. They have remarkable strength properties, conduct electricity and have a variety of other potential uses. “It’s a bit of a miracle product,” says Steve Price, an executive director with Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions, which houses the pilot plant at a facility in Edmonton. “Some [companies] are looking at it to coat packaging, making it stronger and more impervious to moisture. Some are looking at it for packaging that is exposed to deteriorating food substances because of its anti-bacterial properties. Some are even looking at it to enhance oil recovery as a result of its thickening properties.”
A couple of hours southwest of Edmonton, in Drayton Valley, workers in a new, 34,000-square-foot fibre mat plant, owned by BioComposites Group, weave together wood fibres – primarily spruce and aspen – with longer fibres from either natural sources (flax or hemp) or artificial fibres like nylon. Like rebar in concrete, the longer fibres increase the strength of the resulting product. Resins can be added to further increase strength. “Our primary startup product will be automotive interior car parts,” says Dan Madlung, CEO of BioComposites Group.
“For example your car-door panel, dashboard and headliner [the soft part on the inside of the roof] can all be made out of wood fibres that have been ground up and molded. You’ll find fibre mat parts on a lot of high end automobiles like Mercedes, Audi and BMW. We’ll be the only plant in North America that can make this product.”
Demand for car parts made from organic fibres is coming from two places: one is the general quest to lighten vehicles and thereby increase fuel efficiency, meaning fibre is replacing metals where possible. The second is European legislation that requires a certain portion of every vehicle be recyclable. Similar legislation is in the works in some North American jurisdictions.
The fibre mat can also be woven together with a needle punch, making a resin-free product that can be used in reclamation work. Generally speaking, land is currently reclaimed by planting seeds or seedlings directly into the affected soil. But that method results in a low survival rate, says Tam Tekle, whose company, Tekle Technical Services, developed the fibre mat technology before selling it to BioComposites Group. Seeds that are planted on the resin-free fibre mat, which is somewhere between half an inch and an inch thick, do much better after they are allowed to germinate in controlled conditions. “You put a bit of dirt on it and seed in the same composition as you collected from the field,” Tekle says. “They grow on the mat in the greenhouse. Then when you want to harden them in the nursery you take the carpet on which the seedlings are growing, put it on the ground and keep feeding it. Once it is ready you take the whole thing into the field. The carpet biodegrades and the plants grow.”
These new products – whether it’s Alpac’s bio-methanol or BioComposites fibre mat – are still in the early stages. They have not yet been proven commercial. Which of these latter-day innovations turns into the next commercially viable product remains to be seen, but Madlung, for one, likes his chances. “We have interest from major car manufacturers,” he says. “We’ve produced these products in our lab and they’ve accepted them. We just have to be able to produce them in our plant first then we’ll get the orders.”