What do you see in the remnants from logging the residual biomass of a tree? A pile of roots, branches, bark, etc.? Does it strike you as a source of material for a sports car or part of an airplane? What about your favorite fragrance, cosmetics, and fashion products? Technological advances are making it possible to derive these and several other products — the ‘bioproducts’ — using renewable and sustainable biological feedstocks, such as forest residue and agricultural crops. The primary components of these feedstocks — cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin — are separated and modified for use in various applications, such as making polymers and platform chemicals that can be used to produce bioplastics, automobile components, food packaging, cosmetics, and textiles.
If you have followed the history of forestry, this should come as little surprise. Indigenous peoples have long been using trees for making bioproducts, including clothes, houses, canoes, medicines, food, and more. In British Columbia, trees such as redcedar are revered as the “tree of life” because nearly every part is of value in coastal Indigenous cultures.1 In modern times, while the petrochemical industry provides chemicals and polymers covering most of our needs, the forest industry has traditionally remained focused on lumber, solid wood products, pulp and paper, and logging.
However, in recent decades a commitment to clean technology and decarbonization to support low-carbon economic growth, combined with the need for market diversification, has shifted the industry focus of non-traditional forest products into advanced bio-based products (chemicals, fuels, and materials), typically sourced from fossil fuels. The application of forest based biomaterials was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic: while many economic activities were shut down globally, BC’s pulp mills were busy keeping the supply of key medical grade pulp for manufacturing masks and other personal protective equipment.2 With innovation and critical thinking, it is possible to expand the application of forest biomass to a myriad of products and have a future where many petroleum-based products can be sourced from trees.
According to an assessment by Natural Resources Canada, the global market potential for emerging bioproducts, such as bioplastics, platform chemicals, wood fibre composites etc., is estimated to be approximately US$130 billion, with the largest compound annual growth rate predicted for bioplastics (approximately 23 per cent) and platform chemicals (approximately 12 per cent).3 BC is well positioned to meet the demand for innovative and profitable forest bioproducts but despite being a global leader in forest management practices and export of wood products, the province is lagging behind Europe and USA in forest biopoduct innovation.
Europe leads the innovation in sustainable forest bioproducts. Finland and Sweden have made tremendous progress in transforming their forest sector operations, particularly in the pulp and paper industry. Finland’s Metsä group has established the world’s first Next Generation Bio-Product Mill5 at Äänekoski. The biggest investment (€1.2 billion) in the history of Finnish forestry is redefining their pulp and paper industry by increasing the product portfolio with innovative bioproducts, generating excess bioenergy, and using no fossil fuels. The Äänekoski mill utilizes the side streams generated in pulp production to make bioproducts and bioenergy, which account for 20 per cent of the mill’s sales, while continuing its innovation on future bioproducts including pulp-based textile fibres and lignin.6 Similarly, Stora Enso is providing low-carbon renewable solutions for packaging and biomaterials, while developing innovative products such as renewable paperboard packaging tubes, aromas for fragrances, solvents, automotive and aircraft components, and resins using forest biomass. These companies are transforming from a traditional paper and board producer to a renewable materials growth companies.
These efforts are further supplemented by the Finnish government. For example, Business Finland, the Finnish funding agency for innovation, has invested in multidisciplinary projects such as Design Driven Value Chains in the World of Cellulose (DWoC),7in collaboration with industry and academic partners to identify innovative applications for cellulosic materials in textiles, 3-D printing, and other purposes. By fostering collaboration between basic research, design, architecture, technology, and business, Finland aims to be a source of value-added cellulosic products and business concepts.
Europe is also leading in developing cost-effective technologies for production of commodity chemicals and fibers from forest biomass. In Sweden, Södra’s pulp mill in Mönsterås has established the world’s first plant for commercial biomethanol from forest biomass in addition to refining tall oil8, rosin, and turpentine. In collaboration with the Swedish research institute RISE, Södra has also developed OnceMore™ — a technique for large-scale recycling of textile fibres from blended fabrics (polycottons). Södra’s pulp mill at Mörrum is already producing pulp by adding 20 tons of used, white textiles.
Europe’s success in moving towards a sustainable forest sector stems from their strong commitment for collaboration between industry, academia, and government. Such partnership fosters innovation by involving key stakeholders at a much earlier stage, which ensures that critical milestones along the innovation pathway are thoroughly validated and reviewed for successful deliverables.
The United States (US), where the major sources of biomass feedstock are agricultural residues, is also advancing on the bioeconomy. The US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is supporting industry-led projects to develop innovative technologies for production of renewable chemicals and materials using agricultural biomass.
Using BETO’s funding, start-up company Lygos has developed and commercialized technology to produce malonic acid from cellulosic sugars for applications in pharmaceuticals, flavors, fragrances, and electronic industries. Similarly, Genomatica, a renewable chemical company, has developed a microbial process to convert biomass to butanediol, for use in hard plastics, and other high-performance fabrics. Independently, companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks, Amyris, Bayer, and Novozymes are also capitalizing on advances in genomics and synthetic biology to sustainably produce high value chemicals and products at scale.
In Canada the federal government, in collaboration with FPInnovations and provincial governments, have made a significant effort to foster innovation in the forest based bioproducts area. Initiatives such as the Bio-pathways Project,9 have recognized the need for market diversification, high-value bioproducts and integration of new technologies into existing mills to create more jobs, greater financial and social returns and overall a sustainable and profitable forest sector.
The project also highlighted that a) the best technology and product mixes will vary by region, depending on provincial policies and requirements, b) making efficient and economic use of waste streams is crucial, c) the lumber industry is central to the industry’s competitiveness; and d) industry needs to forge external partnerships (e.g. with chemical and energy sectors).
Informed by the outcomes of the Bio-pathways Project, Natural Resources Canada funded the Transformative Technologies Pilot (TTP)-Scale Demonstration Program10 which is turning the concept of transformation into reality. Since 2006, TTP has supported researchers from government, industry, and academia to study and develop novel technologies that have the potential to transform Canada’s forest sector. Using TPP funding, companies such as WestFraser have developed Canada’s first commercial-scale lignin recovery, Millar Western has installed North America’s first anaerobic hybrid digester pre-treatment technology to generate energy, and Woodland Biofuels has developed technology to produce wood based ethanol.
Elsewhere, in partnership with Licella — an Australian biofuels company — Canfor Pulp Products Inc. is developing technology for economic conversion of low-value wood and pulp mill waste to clean sustainable biocrude. For innovative biomaterials, CelluForce is using cellulose nanocrystals to improve product performance in several industrial sectors and Performance BioFilaments is working with Mercer and Resolute to produce Nanofibrillated Cellulose fibrils for application in a wide range of product solutions.
In BC, efforts are ongoing to strengthen the academia-industry-government partnerships for developing forest based bioproducts. A BC Pulp and Paper BioAlliance was established in 2017 in partnership with the University of British Columbia, BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, FPInnovations, and seven pulp and paper companies including Canfor, Catalyst, Paper Excellence, West Fraser, Domtar, and Harmac Pacific. With funding support from the industry partners, provincial and federal governments, as well as Genome BC through its GeneSolve program, the Alliance is focused on “best bet” technologies for upgrading waste streams of BC’s pulp and paper industries. BC is also leading the academic research in this field through the Bio Product Institute at UBC, which hosts some of the world’s leading researchers working on developing forest based bioproducts. These initiatives are laying the foundation for innovation in the pulp and paper sector. However, for transformative innovation and long-term sustainability, substantial capital investment is required.
Forest-derived bioproducts are poised to play a major role in meeting future demands for energy and materials. This presents a unique opportunity for BC to extend its excellence in forest products by transforming the pulp and paper mills to integrated biorefineries that can convert biomass and waste streams to fuels, power, and chemicals. Improved and enhanced economics of the mill processes will lead to added social and economic benefits including significant job creation. To realize the dream of a diverse, robust, and resilient bioeconomy, it is critical to involve forest dependent communities and Indigenous peoples, engage key stakeholders, and establish collaborations for research on technology development. Only then will we be able to ensure our forest economy can continue to thrive sustainably.
- Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) uses and notes: https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/treebook/westernredcedar.htm
- Vancouver Island pulp mill supplies materials for medical protective equipment in both Canada and U.S.; https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-vancouver-island-pulp-mill-supplies-materials-for-medical-protective/
- Natural Resources Canada. Forest bioeconomy, bioenergy and bioproducts. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/forest-industry-trade/forest-bioeconomy-bioenergy-bioproducts/13315
- Male, Jonathan. April 2016. Integrating the Production of Biofuels and Bioproducts. https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/integrating-production-biofuels-and-bioproducts
- Metsä Group’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski – the largest wood-processing plant in the Northern Hemisphere. https://www.metsafibre.com/en/about-us/Production-units/Bioproduct-mill/Pages/default.aspx
- Rider, Dan. March 2019. Shaping the new sustainable textile fibre future. https://www.metsafibre.com/en/media/Stories/Pages/Shaping-the-new-textile-fibre-future.aspx
- Design Drive Value Chains in the World of Cellulose (DWoC); https://cellulosefromfinland.fi/design-driven-value-chains-in-the-world-of-cellulose/
- Tall Oil. https://www.etipbioenergy.eu/value-chains/feedstocks/waste/tall-oil
- Bio-pathways Project. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/forest-industry-trade/forest-bioeconomy-bioenergy-biop/bio-pathways-project/13321
- Transformative Technologies PilotTransformative Technologies Pilot (TTP)-Scale Demonstration Program, Natural Resources Canada. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/forest-industry-trade/forest-industry-tools-research/squeezing-more-value-trees/13331?wbdisable=true#:~:text=Under%20the%20Transformative%20Technologies%20Program,a%20boost%20in%20the%20marketplace.
- Horacek, Thomas. April 2019. BC Pulp and Paper Bioproduct Alliance Received $2.38 Million Federal Funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada. http://c-cbc.center/allnews/wd19
This article appeared in BC Forest Professional magazine.