Squeezing more value from trees


A solid forest resource base

Three centuries ago, Canada’s newcomers were quick to recognize the rich forest resource that lay before them, covering much of the landscape from one side of the continent to the other. Over time, as the fledgling nation emerged and thrived, so did its forest industry. Canada became known around the world for the abundance and quality of its forest products.

Today, the wealth of Canada’s forest resource remains the same. Yet, what became apparent a decade ago was that how the resource was being used was no longer competitive or sustainable in the global marketplace. Many factors combined to hobble the once-vigorous industry, including a worldwide economic downturn, intensified competition from new suppliers, and increasing pressures tied to addressing environmental concerns. It soon seemed that Canada’s traditional forestry markets no longer wanted what Canada had been traditionally selling. Between 2003 and 2009, the country’s forest sector lost more than 130 000 jobs and saw 455 of its mills close temporarily or permanently.

Time for transformation

All players in the forest sector, including government, industry and stakeholders groups, recognized the need for a major transformation. In April 2007, Natural Resources Canada, working with its partners in provincial and territorial governments, industry and academia, put into motion a plan to set the sector back on its feet. The Transformative Technologies Program (TTP), as the plan is known, is being delivered by FPInnovations on behalf of Natural Resources Canada.

The aim of this comprehensive national strategy is to rebuild a vibrant, future-looking forest sector. Underpinning all aspects of the transformation agenda is a commitment to thinking, planning and acting innovatively. Innovation is the watchword of the TTP. It reflects the awareness by everyone in the sector that new thinking about what can be done with the resource on hand offers the best way forward in reviving and re-invigorating a forest sector that had lost its edge.

The global financial crisis of recent years, which emerged after the TTP's inception, has only underscored the value of the Canadian forest service having this major program of innovation well underway.

The four new “drivers” of the National Forest Sector Transformation Strategy:
  • improve the productivity and returns on existing products and services
  • expand markets for existing products and services using competitive intelligence
  • leverage the role of the sector as a provider of environmental stewardship
  • provide new niche products and services with greater profit margins
Source: FPInnovations, “Building the Capacities of Canada’s Forest Sector for a Different Future,” 2010

Extract more value, add more value: two sides of the transformation coin

A key objective of the transformation strategy is to increase current and future markets for Canadian wood products—in effect, to “squeeze more value from trees.”

One way this is being done is by identifying new values in the resource and then extracting and capitalizing on those. Converting forest biomass “waste” into bioproducts is a prime example. Wood previously deemed of little use, such as that left behind from harvesting activities, milling operations and pest infestations, is now being turned into products and services for the rapidly growing bioeconomy.

Another approach to “squeezing” is by asking what consumers want and then finding new or better ways to add those values to products. These days, for example, a forest product’s “environmental footprint” is as important an influence on purchasing decisions as the product’s quality and performance are. Consumers want evidence that sustainable practices were used at every stage of a product’s pre-purchase life, from growing, harvesting, milling and manufacturing to packaging and shipping.

Value chain optimization: think market before product. Photomontage: Market demanded attributes (paper roll, wood building, wood frame), Processing (coating plant), Raw material attributes (wood chips, shredding, forest crown cover, wood building materials. Photo: FPInnovations

Thinking of business as a value chain and making the best matches along the chain—matches between market needs, processing methods and the raw resource—increases the value of forest products and the value of the resource they draw upon. The goal is to apply innovative thinking all the way along the chain, examining each point through the compound lens of economic, environmental and social considerations so that the right resource is used for the right product.

 

This focus on extracting more value and adding more value is occurring throughout the forest sector value chain, from selective breeding to marketing. With Natural Resources Canada providing a central leadership, investment and coordinating role, the well-integrated TTP strategy is working to concentrate efforts on:

  • fostering R&D of emerging and break-through technologies and processes that can lead to next-generation forest products
  • identifying new uses for wood fibre and new markets for the new products and processes identified
  • diversifying the sector’s product range, especially for higher value-added, specialty areas (for example, biofuels, biochemicals and nanotechnology).

It is all part of the transformative plan’s dual agenda to increase the sector’s global competitiveness with enhanced productivity and higher-end goods while at the same time practising and promoting sustainability.

A sample of the initiatives in progress:

The “Canadian advantage”

Canada’s forest sector has always held in its hand two winning cards: the scale of its forests and the diversity of its forests. These assets, combined with a well-established social infrastructure, political stability and economic wealth, have long set the country apart from virtually every other one in the global forest sector marketplace.

Yet, as the sector’s slump in the past decade showed, commodity markets, just like world circumstances, never stand still. Technology and scientific knowledge change. Social expectations change. Political climates change. And forest health and resource productivity change. All have an impact on markets and on how well any player in those markets is able to stay competitive.

Today, Canada’s forest sector, now rapidly re-energizing under the TTP, is moving forward stronger than ever. It is proving again that it is the equal of its competitors in terms of technological know-how, infrastructure capacity and comprehension of market needs. On top of this, the unique “Canadian advantage” of forest scale and diversity has not gone away. This undeniable edge remains a defining strength for the sector, and is the one around which Canada will continue to build its forest sector strategies.

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Pilot scale demonstration projects

Research to application: putting good ideas to the test

An innovative product or process may show promise under research conditions and even in small-scale trials. But how well will it work at an industrial scale in the real world? Does the product show solid commercial value? Does the process offer productivity benefits?

Getting answers to these questions is exactly what the pilot scale demonstration projects are designed to do. As part of the push to transform Canada’s forest sector, these pilot projects are a key step in accelerating the assessment and development of next-generation products and services.

Large demonstration projects make it possible to:
  • evaluate the reliability of a newly developed technology
  • optimize the performance of a product prototype
  • test ways to further commercialize a production process.

The Pilot Scale Demonstration program

Under the Transformative Technologies Program (TTP), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) launched the Pilot Scale Demonstration program, with FPInnovations delivering the initiative expressly to give TTP research developed in its laboratories a boost in the marketplace. In operational pilot plants in several regions of the country, emerging and breakthrough technologies, processes and products will be taken “live” so their use, effectiveness, risks and costs can be tested at an industrial level.

This strategy, delivered by NRCan in collaboration with the provinces and industry, is already making great strides. In the last two years, 15 pilot projects, all protected under patent, have been given the go-ahead.

Sample projects

A short list of examples highlights the range of innovative research-to-application projects now underway through the Pilot Scale Demonstration program:

  • A plant being established at AV Cell’s pulp mill in Athollville, New Brunswick, will soon be evaluating a new technology for treating mill effluents. Not only is the new system expected to substantially improve efficiency over the existing treatment process, but it will allow some of the effluent to be converted into biogas that the mill can use in fuelling its operations.
  • The nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) plant under construction at Domtar’s pulp and paper mill in Windsor, Quebec, will soon see Domtar turning hardwood chips and other forms of forest biomass into a range of high-value industrial and consumer products. The new facility is the first in the world to commercialize NCC technology at a large scale.
  • At the Structurlam facility in Okanagan Falls, BC, a plant is being built to manufacture panels of cross-laminated timber (CLT). This product, made of layers of timber glued together under pressure, is already a popular construction material in Europe. Unusual about the Structurlam CLT project, however, is its plan to use beetle-killed pine and other softwood species (such as hemlock and balsam fir) that are generally little used. It promises to offer a win-win strategy: putting under-valued wood to good economic use and adding to Canada’s new and innovative line of “green” building products.

Complete Hollow Fibre Contactors (HFC) system, a component of biogas project. Photo: Michael Richard & Pushpendra Joshi, Project Engineers of AV Cell

Five-ply cross-laminated timber panel. Photo: Bill Downing, Structurlam Products Limited

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Bio-pathways Project Phase II

The coming bio-revolution

Aircraft bodies, tires and bulletproof vests. These are not the first items that spring to people’s minds as uses for wood. Yet, they are only three examples of how wood fibre is being used today in new high-tech, high-value ways. It is all part of the growing “bio-buzz.” From bio-oil and biopharmaceuticals to bioactive paper and biobuildings, applications for substances derived from wood (such as lignin and nanocrystalline cellulose) now reach into nearly every imaginable corner of use.

Interest in converting forest biomass into economically profitable and environmentally friendly products has been climbing in Canada’s forest sector for more than a decade. Turning wood residue into heat, fuels, electricity, plastics, food additives and non-toxic chemicals not only reflects smart use and innovative thinking. It also responds to the burgeoning demand worldwide for “green” products made from naturally renewable, sustainably managed sources.

The Bio-pathways Project, initiated by industry in 2009, set out to assess which aspects of the bioeconomy offered the greatest potential for forest sector transformation in Canada. The work has been guided by the Forest Products Association of Canada, and includes partners FPInnovations, Natural Resources Canada and others. Phase I of the study showed that integrating new biotechnologies with existing forest products facilities was the best way to achieve that transformation.

Bio-pathways Project Phase II

In February 2011, the results of Phase II of the Bio-pathways Project were released. Phase II examined the global market potential of emerging bioenergy, biochemical and bioproducts, and how Canada’s forest sector might tap into that. The title of the summary report, “The New Face of the Canadian Forest Industry: The Emerging Bio-revolution,” sums up the research findings well.

The study estimates the global market opportunities for bioproducts at $200 billion. And that, the report says, is no short-term consumer trend, but part of a “bio-revolution” that will change the future of forest resource use around the world.

This is very good news for Canada. Its abundance of biomass, together with its expanding infrastructure of biotechnology-based research, development and production, means the forest sector is ideally positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. Backed by supportive policies, investment and partnerships, there is every indication that Canada’s forest sector stands to be a particularly strong competitive force in the global bioeconomy.

Canada’s bioproduct carbon footprint edge

Work also continues under the Bio-pathways Project to assess the environmental impact of various biotechnologies and bioproducts. Researchers at the Canadian Forest Service are analyzing the cradle-to-grave life-cycle carbon footprint of a range of bioproducts. Part of the purpose is to show how favourably these products rate compared with non-renewable products made from fossil fuels. For example, knowing that the carbon footprint of a biofuel such as wood pellets is much lower than that of an equivalent amount of oil provides a prominent value-added feature in the rapidly expanding global bioeconomy.

Key findings of the Bio-pathways Project, Phase II:

  • Numerous viable options exist to convert forest biomass to bioenergy, biochemicals and biomaterial.
  • These options are best achieved by integrating their production with the traditional forest industry.
  • Producing these products at forest industry facilities improves the economic results for the bioproducts and forest industry facilities. It increases the job potential by up to five times versus stand-alone bioenergy plants and is environmentally beneficial.
  • Markets already exist and are dynamically growing for this broad range of innovative bioproducts that can be produced by extracting maximum value out of the wood fibre from every tree. These new markets will reach an estimated $200 billion by 2015.
  • Canada’s forest sector is already producing a range of bioproducts, but it is not maximizing their contribution to the industry’s bottom line.
  • Integrating new biotechnologies into existing production will ensure a vibrant future and a Canadian advantage for the sector.
Source: “The New Face of the Canadian Forest Industry: The Emerging Bio-revolution.” Bio-pathways Project Phase II, Forest Products Association of Canada, February 2011

 

“This has extraordinary implications for Canada’s future prosperity. This study produced a roadmap for a new business model that consolidates the economics of wood and pulp and paper production by extracting additional economic value from each tree harvested. This will have a huge economic, environmental and social impact for Canada.”

—Avrim Lazar, the President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada
[press release, February 2011]
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Marketing wood's green attributes

The Green Building Movement

Today’s consumers in the highly competitive wood products market carry clout. Around the world, buyers are saying they want sustainably produced, environmentally friendly—in popular terms, “green”—products. This applies to their building materials too. The value of green construction in the United States is forecast to reach nearly $140 billion by 2013, and every indication is that the shift to green building is here for the long term.

Canada’s forest sector—which counts on new partnerships with green building certification programs—recognizes the tremendous market potential for green building products. It is also well aware of the need to demonstrate high standards of environmental performance attuned to this new reality. The challenge is persuading consumers in general, and construction decision-makers in particular (including architects, engineers, builders and policy-makers), that Canadian wood building materials and assemblies are as viable options as the current popular choices: concrete, steel and bamboo.

One tool proving to be especially useful for highlighting wood’s environmental advantages, as well as its physical durability merits, is Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA).

Life-Cycle Analysis

Life-Cycle Analysis is a process that measures energy consumption, waste generation and similar details of a product’s life from “cradle to grave.” The process starts with the acquisition of the raw materials used to make and distribute a product, and carries through to the product’s use and eventual disposal. Over the past few decades, work by FPInnovations alone and in collaboration with the Athena Institute has been underway to develop LCA science and tools as a means of highlighting the clear environmental advantages of choosing wood for building applications. The goal is to see wood gain preferred-material status across North America and overseas when “environmental footprint” is a major influence in material selection.

A recent milestone shows that these efforts to increase acceptance of LCA in green building decisions are paying off. The U.S. Green Building Council and its Canadian Green Building Council affiliate agreed to incorporate elements of LCA into the widely used green building rating system know as LEED. Key to LCA’s adoption in LEED was work done by FPInnovations is assisting the Athena Institute with updating the supporting software and databases.

Other “wood first” initiatives

Life-Cycle Analysis is just one of many projects FPInnovations is leading or funding to promote the advantages of building with wood, in traditional and in next-generation form. Much research and development of cross-laminated timber, for example, is helping position the material as an attractive alternative to concrete and steel in non-residential construction in North America.

Development of fibre-polymer composites for decking is another example. Projects funded by the North American Wood First Initiative, a program started by Natural Resources Canada in 2007, are also helping identify new markets and promotional opportunities for these innovative, green and high value-added wood materials and assemblies.

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The power of better inventory tools

The importance of inventory control

Increased productivity and greater competitiveness globally are major goals in Canada’s transformative forest sector strategy. A basic business must-have is therefore inventory control. Any organization involved in production needs to know the resources it has so it can plan what it will make for the market. What kind of raw material do we have to work with, how much of it do we have and where is it located? Will the right material be available when we need it? How effectively can we match its availability to our production schedule?

Improving inventory control in Canada’s forest sector involves improving knowledge of the value of the resources on hand in order to hone productivity and the competitive edge. The greater the detail and accuracy obtainable at the tree and stand levels by forest inventory data, the better-informed business decisions will be. And the more streamlined and automated the inventory production process can be made, the higher the business cost savings will be.

Finding better ways to see tree values

Today, better tools are improving the ability of forest managers to identify, estimate and forecast the extent of existing and emerging forest resource values. At the Canadian Forest Service, work to enhance existing inventory systems is a research priority.

Interest in capturing traditional attributes such as stand height, stem diameter, density and volume remains. Now, however, with the increasing emphasis on the value of wood fibre (to meet the demands of the fast-growing bioproduct markets), having the ability to inventory fibre attributes is equally important. Knowing what pulp grades, lumber grades and chemical properties the trees in a particular region or stand will yield gives forest managers a major advantage when it comes to mapping forest resource potential and value.

LiDAR: expanding inventory capabilities

Aerial sensing. Image: Murray Woods, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

The Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and its research partners are testing numerous remote sensing technologies for inventory applications. One showing particular promise is LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology. LiDAR is not a new technology, but its use in forest inventory applications is relatively recent.

LiDAR, which can be used both from aircraft and satellites, provides direct three-dimensional measurements of the structure of vegetation and the underlying terrain. From these measurements, digital elevation models and remarkably accurate forest inventory data can be derived. This information can be used for many other forestry-related activities, including the mapping of hydrologic features (such as rivers, floodplains and wetlands) and the planning of corridors such as roads. Used in combination with other data sources such as multispectral optical imagery, LiDAR is changing the thinking and planning around how conventional forest inventory is being conducted.

Some limitations with the technology are still being addressed (for example, how to enhance the data’s accuracy in hilly terrain and its ability to show surface texture). However, as continued refinements to LiDAR are made, researchers are optimistic that the technology could revolutionize forest sector management and production in Canada.

The primary advantage of LiDAR is that it can be used to map forest values through a full range of resolutions:
  • extensive – for example, use of satellite LiDAR enables inventorying of Canada’s northern forest regions, where the cost of using conventional means is cost-prohibitive
  • intensive – for example, use of airborne LiDAR in southern operational areas enables the inventorying of attributes that could not be identified before
  • very intensive – for example, use of terrestrial LiDAR enhances the accuracy of existing sampling modes
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Harnessing the collaborative power of academic R&D networks

Directed, collaborative research: the fast-track vehicle to innovation

If scientific research paves the path leading to an enhanced, value-enriched forest sector economy, then collaborative, directed research is the vehicle that hastens the journey.

Nowhere is this attitude more keenly embraced than in the Transformative Technologies Program (TTP). Funded by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and administered by FPInnovations, this program brings governments, industry and academia together on R&D projects that focus on finding answers to the forest sector’s priority questions.

Harnessing the collective research abilities of Canada’s top university scientists, engineers and other researchers creates a vehicle with the power to accelerate the innovation process in Canada’s forest sector.

The Forest Sector R&D Initiative

In 2008, the Forest Sector R&D Initiative was created expressly to develop R&D programs that: align academic research with the forest sector’s innovation agenda; ensure the programs have commercial relevance; and take advantage of the emerging bioeconomy. The partners behind this unique R&D vehicle are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), NRCan and FPInnovations.

Currently, eight targeted research networks operate through linkages with the three partner organizations, industry and academia. The eight networks (seven funded through NSERC and one through a business-led Network Centre of Excellence) address key forest sector research areas within the five research themes of the FPInnovations Flagship Innovation Program (under the TTP):

  • Integrated Value Maximization
  • Next Generation Pulp and Papers
  • Next Generation Building Solutions
  • Energy and Chemicals from Forest Biomass
  • Novel Bioproducts from Forest Biomass

A total of $34 million is being provided over five years for academic research projects that match these forest sector priority needs for knowledge and innovation.

Network partnerships offer a novel arrangement

With this unique university-industry-government partnership arrangement, all parties benefit from opportunities to achieve substantial efficiencies (why duplicate efforts?), accelerate product development and deployment, and meet multiple objectives (socio-economic, environmental and others).

In this way, linking academic research more closely to the vision and needs of industrial innovation is helping make the goals of forest sector transformation agenda a reality.

To enhance research collaboration within the forest sector innovation system, the eight research networks are aligned with the five research themes of the FPInnovations Flagship Innovation Program under the Transformative Technologies Program (TTP).

TTP Research Theme Strategic Research Network
Integrated Value Maximization
  • NSERC Strategic Research Network on Value Chain Optimization (*new)
  • Strategic Network on Forest Management for Value-added Products (ForValueNet)
Next Generation Pulp and Papers
  • NSERC Green Fibre Network (*new)
  • SENTINEL – The Canadian Network for the Development and Use of Bioactive Paper
Next Generation Building Solutions
  • NSERC Strategic Network on Innovative Wood Products and Building Systems (*new)

Energy and Chemicals from Forest Biomass

  • NSERC Biomaterials and Chemicals Strategic Network (*new)
  • NSERC Bioconversion Network
Novel Bioproducts from Forest Biomass
  • Canadian Forest NanoProducts Network (AboraNano)

Examples of collaboration underway through NSERC’s Forest Sector R&D strategic networks:

  • development of new business models to increase profitability for forest products companies – Through the NSERC Strategic Network on Value Chain Optimization, 14 industry, government and academic organizations are developing e-business as a means of speeding up and managing the flow of information and material between businesses.
  • production of new high-value forest products – Within the NSERC Biomaterials and Chemicals Strategic Network, 15 research projects involving researchers from nine universities across Canada are working to produce a suite of technologies for developing value-added products made from lignin (the major component of wood after cellulose).
  • development of new wood-fibre-based products to replace fossil-fuel based products – Within the NSERC Green Fibre Network, 20 professors and 24 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from six Canadian universities are working with scientists and engineers from FPInnovations and other industrial partners to create next-generation pulp and paper products. Examples include bioactive papers for agriculture and 3D moulded-fibre packaging with superior barrier properties to replace plastic and Styrofoam food containers.
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