April 21, 2009
by Noelle Stapinsky, Features Editor
If a beetle-killed tree falls in a mountain pine forest, does it make a sound? It sure does if you’re part of the $80-billion forest industry. Over the past decade, the indigenous rice-sized pest that infests lodgepole pine trees has pillaged millions of hectares of forest in BC and has no hitched a ride over the Rockies into Alberta.
Natural Resources Canada has predicted 50% of the country’s mature pines would be dead by this year, and 80% will be gone by 2013. Seeing the devastation spread in BC, Alberta has turned to science to find a sustainable solution using sensors that will put the dead wood to use.
In 2005, the research and development started with a pilot plant at the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC’s) Edmonton facility that looked for ways to preserve the economic value of the trees by processing the inferior wood for products such as paper.
The Alberta Newsprint Co., a premium newsprint manufacturer, invested almost $17 million in the project, while Alberta threw in a $10-million grant from a national Community Development Trust (CDT)—a fund set up by the federal government that among other things, assists communities reliant on agriculture and forestry sectors.
“Currently there isn’t very much being done with the deadwood. Some research projects are considering burning it to create heat and power through gasification, but that isn’t fully tested yet,” says Mary Cusack, a spokesperson for Alberta Advanced Education and Technology (AAET), one of the project partners. “This project is one of the first initiatives making good use of the deadwood.”
The technology is now being field-tested at Alberta Newsprint’s pulp and paper mill in Whitecourt, Alta., which uses thermo mechanical pulping (TMP) refiners that convert woodchips into a pulp.
Gary Smith, Alberta Newsprint’s technical director, says the technology combines six chip and water contamination sensors developed and manufactured by ARC that measure the properties of the raw chips coming through the pulping press. Information is fed back to a computer analysis system, and the system automatically adjusts the newsprint technology and equipment.