Building our future … with wood

Posted by Rumin Mann
July 26th, 2012

Janelle Tam, an Ontario teenager who recently moved from Singapore to Canada, won a national science award for her groundbreaking work on the anti-aging properties of tree pulp. Tam, 16, won the $5,000 award in the 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada for showing that cellulose, the woody material found in trees that enables them to stand, also acts as a potent anti-oxidant. ‘Her super anti-oxidant compound could one day help improve health and anti-aging products by neutralizing more of the harmful free-radicals found in the body,’

Bioproducts could eventually be used not just for energy, but to build homes, planes and more

In resource towns like Castlegar in the West Kootenay, the future of B.C.’s forest industry is already starting to unfold. It’s all about sustainability and it’s on display in the lower emissions, shrinking environmental footprint and diversified revenue stream at Mercer International’s Celgar pulp mill, one of a number of B.C. mills that is beginning to tap the province’s forests for new bio-products – from energy to bio-chemicals.

The drive for a sustainable future, particularly among the developing nations, is expected to lead to more reliance on biofuels derived from what used to be termed wood waste; lighter vehicles and aircraft made from cellulose composites; and new demand for wood, rather than concrete or steel, as the building product of choice.

What’s unfolding at Celgar is just the beginning, said David Gandossi, Mercer senior vice-president. What began as a symbiotic relationship between the sawmilling sector and the pulp sector half a century ago is evolving into a new bio-economy.

“Round logs and square lumber mean there are residual chips left over,” he said. The chips went to pulp mills, which converted them to northern bleached softwood kraft, the best pulp in the world. With emerging economies using more tissues, high-grade papers and similar products, demand for NBSK is increasing.

B.C.’s pulp mills, once considered dinosaurs that would be pushed to extinction by modern southern hemisphere mills producing pulp from eucalyptus, are in the enviable position now of producing a limited-supply product into a market that is expected to grow far into the future.

And then there is the bio-economy.

“What the bio-economy is bringing along is technological innovation, which means you use more of the wood and you get more value from it,” said Gandossi. “The first wave has been to produce electricity. When we cook the wood chips, 50 per cent of the wood becomes cellulose and 50 per cent is left over. It’s essentially a young fossil fuel. It just hasn’t been around for millions of years.”

Mercer, which also owns mills in Germany at Rosenthal and Stendal, is already moving into the next wave: the bio-refinery concept, where mills will produce pulp, green energy and bio-chemicals that will drive the future bio-economy.

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