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PLANT

FPAC banks on the bio-age


April 8, 2010
by Noelle Stapinsky, Features Editor

As sawmills crank out planks and 2x4s, they can save the wood scrap for use as feedstock in bio products.

Photo: FPAC

The economy may be on the mend, but Canada’s battered forest industry continues to struggle. Demand for many forestry products is in decline while crippling pricing pressures from global competitors, particularly those in developing countries, are driving Canadian companies into bankruptcies, and plants are closing, resulting in mounting job losses (more than 90,000 since 2001).

The industry needs to find new ways to prosper and support its workforce of 270,000, and that “something new” may be bio-energy and bio-chemicals.

A year long-study—The Bio-pathways Project—was commissioned by the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), which represents Canada’s wood, pulp and paper producers nationally and internationally. It revealed forestry companies could capitalize on the bio-age by integrating bio-energy production with existing operations.

“It’s really about the transformation of the sector,” says Catherine Cobden, FPAC’s vice-president of economics and regulatory affairs.

The study pulled together more than 60 industry experts, executives and governments to assess 27 traditional and emerging bio-chemical and bio-energy technologies on an economic, social and environmental level. And they discovered forestry companies need to look no further than to their existing operations. By integrating biotechnology, forestry companies can convert biomass (wood fibre) for other uses while producing traditional products.

Some segments, such as lumber, are always going to be profitable, says Cobden.

However, a lot of pulp and paper companies need to transform themselves and they have the most significant opportunities in the bio-chemical field.

Traditionally, saw mills would burn residual waste to generate energy. With an integrated bio system in place, they can produce hardwood, two by fours and other wood products while using the residual waste such as the tops of trees, bark and stumps as the feedstock for a bio product.

Pulp mills would continue to produce paper, but also extract some of the cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin at the end of the process. The cellulose is used to make bio chemicals and hemicelluloses produces polymer and ethanol.

“If you can replace polymer with hemicelluloses you are reducing your hydrocarbon use within plastics and you end up with a greener product,” says Pierre Lapointe, president and CEO of Quebec-based FPInnovations, Canada’s largest forestry sector research organization and the provider of the potential technologies studied in the Bio-pathways Project.