Transformative technologies

Revolutionizing the forest sector

The Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was called a revolution for a reason. Inventions like the steam engine made commerce, labour, exploration and travel easier than ever and transformed how people lived and interacted with the world. A more recent technological revolution, brought about by the microchip and Internet, is causing a similar revolution in our lives today.

A new 3D computer simulation program for engineered wood products, resulting from cross-laboratory collaboration between Forintek and Paprican scientists.  Photo courtesy of FPInnovations.

A new 3D computer simulation program for engineered wood products, resulting from cross-laboratory collaboration between Forintek and Paprican scientists. Photo: FPInnovations

Technological revolutions begin at the industry level. The forest sector, for instance, is in the midst of an upheaval being felt around the globe. New products, processes and trading patterns, and even new commercial plant species, are transforming the sector in fundamental ways. In the midst of this transformation, the Canadian forest sector has a prime opportunity to reinvent itself by embracing transformative technologies.

What are transformative technologies?

Some technologies are developed to reduce costs and provide continuous product improvements within an industry. Transformative technologies go further. They create core changes rather than marginal ones. In the forest sector, transformative technologies promote novel and strategic uses for wood fibre and its many products and derivatives. Such technologies, industry observers agree, are the key to extracting more value from the forest resource.

Various forces are pushing transformative technologies to the forefront of the forest sector:

  • competitiveness of the forest sector
  • climate change and its ramifications for the sector
  • the need for continuous improvement in sustainable land use
  • the limited supply of non-renewable fossil fuels
  • growing demand for products that have a low environmental impact

All of these forces are linked. For instance, if we are to become less dependent on fossil fuels, we need to develop renewable energy alternatives. This presents opportunities to use wood fibre differently which may, in turn, suggest changes to how we manage our forests.

Transformative technologies can impact traditional products, such as lumber and pulp and paper, by producing, using and packaging these products in new ways. They can also shift focus to non-traditional products and new markets.

FPInnovations developed a new veneer-strand lumber (VSL) product made from pine killed by the mountain pine beetle. Photo: FPInnovations

FPInnovations developed a new veneer-strand lumber (VSL) product made from pine killed by the mountain pine beetle. Photo: FPInnovations

Traditional products

Traditional wood products are still mostly destined for residential construction. But wood can be used in broader applications such as commercial and industrial construction, particularly if it is combined in new ways with other building products. Wood products can also be used in different ways to create buildings that have a minimal environmental footprint and can be modified to increase their performance and value relative to these other building products.

Similarly, the pulp and paper manufacturing sectors provide many grades of paper for publishing, packaging and consumer products. These products are now under competitive pressures from low-cost producing countries, which means that the Canadian industry must develop new uses and grades of pulp and paper that are globally competitive while maximizing the value of Canada’s superior fibre resource.

Here are four examples of transformative technologies that could be adopted in the next 10 years:

  • sensors in wood-based materials to measure wood quality, facilitating new, specialized uses for wood
  • wood connection technologies that increase wood use in multi-residential and institutional construction
  • coatings and surface treatments based on nanotechnology that give the appearance of high-grade finishes and prevent discolouration from sunlight
  • new paper grades for publishing using high mineral content and for high-performance packaging

Non-traditional products

Then there are the technologies that will create new products such as biofuels, biochemicals and biopolymers (i.e., bioplastics) that will usher the forest sector into a new era. Footnote1

New processes are being developed to combine wood fibre with plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polypropylene (PP) to produce new materials with enhanced durability and strength. The North American market for these wood-plastic composites in decking and railings alone is growing quickly and could reach $2 billion by 2010.

Researchers are also exploring possible uses of fibre-bioplastic composites. These novel composites, created entirely from renewable resources, are suitable for a variety of applications and could serve as renewable alternatives to wood fibre-plastic composites. The development of renewable products will create new opportunities for the forest sector to improve competitiveness while at the same time lowering our dependence on fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. FPInnovations, Canada’s main forest research institute, and its partners are exploring these new composites along with other emerging products (see box below).

Transformative technologies can also create new applications for forest-derived products. Lignin, for example, is being considered as an innovative replacement for carbon black, a petroleum product used in making car tires. Lignin, a by-product of the wood pulping process, was successfully tried as a substitute for carbon black in the 1950s. But at the time, petroleum was less expensive and the substitution was uneconomical. Now times have changed. The rising cost of petroleum could mean a new market for lignin and new revenues for the forest sector, not to mention less costly tire manufacturing. Work is underway at Ontario’s Lakehead University, supported by Goodyear Canada Inc. and FPInnovations, to develop the necessary technologies.

These and other transformative technologies are in various stages, from early research to commercialization. What does it take for a new idea to make it through these stages? Several factors make the progression easier: strong R&D and innovation, potential market opportunities, increased investment, and collaboration through existing partnerships and new alliances with other industries.

Partners in transformation

FPInnovations is a unique research partnership that is leading the transformation of Canada's forest sector. In 2007, to capitalize on forest innovation, Canada's leading forest research institutes—Forintek, FERIC and Paprican—joined to form FPInnovations, the largest private, not-for-profit forest research institute in the world. The Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (part of Natural Resources Canada) was created to work with FPInnovations to improve forest productivity and increase the value of Canada's wood resources.

A key part of FPInnovations' research is the Transformative Technologies Program, which brings together governments, industry and academia to conduct research along the forest “value chain.” The objective is to come up with innovative products and to increase investment in a higher-value-added forest sector. Looking ahead, FPInnovations expects to form more partnerships with academia, financial institutions and other research groups both in Canada and abroad.