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Transparent wood, 3D printing and stealth technology

Canadians live surrounded by traditional forest products, whether it is construction lumber, mulch in the garden or paper coffee cups. However, Canadians might be surprised to learn that scientists and entrepreneurs are increasingly using forest biomass in items such as cellphone screens, concrete blocks, and batteries. These non-traditional uses are growing and strengthening Canada’s bioeconomy.

Transforming waste into high-value materials

Innovative forest-based materials, created by using cutting-edge science and creative thinking, are increasingly available commercially as alternatives to traditional, non-renewable materials. Looking for ways to grow the added value of their supply chain, the pulp and paper industry is keenly interested in the conversion of their waste products into specialty products.

For example, lignin is a component of wood fibre that is separated out during the pulping process. It can be used to create densified wood that is as strong as steel or transparent wood that is stronger and more insulating than glass. Of significant note, lignin, after cellulose, is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth. Lignin can also be used to make new products such as carbon foam – a strong, lightweight material capable of absorbing sound and radiation, which can be used for aircraft and ship insulation, wall panels and stealth technology.

3D printing with wood

The opportunities for innovation are not only at the end of the supply chain. One company in British Columbia, Advanced BioCarbon 3D (ABC3D), is increasing the utilization of biomass from harvested sites. ABC3D uses biomass that is not considered traditionally to be of commercial value and is usually left in the forest (e.g. branches and small hardwood trees). ABC3D processes the biomass into wood chips, then extracts resin from the wood. The biomass remaining after the resin extraction is processed into a bioplastic polymer. The resin and polymer are then recombined using proprietary technology to create a strong, lightweight bioplastic that can then be used in 3D printers. In a 3D printer, the bioplastic is heated and extruded through a nozzle, depositing layer after layer of bioplastic until it forms a complete three-dimensional object.

CEO Darrel Fry envisions a future where his company can create several types of filaments with different properties, such as carbon fibre-reinforced filament or conductive filament. “Our company is proving that from wood we can make sustainable, economical, high performance plastics,” says Fry. “There’s such high heat resistance and it’s also very strong.”

A 3D printer depositing layers of plastic to create a cone-like object.
In a 3D printer, a strand of filament (yellow) is heated and extruded through a nozzle to create three-dimensional objects. Filament can be made from wood-based bioplastic.
Interior car door panel made of wood fibre.
An engineered wood fibre mat could replace fibreglass components in cars.

Continuing innovation

Many exciting new forest-based products are in the development and testing phases, ready to scale up and enter the market. TTS of Edmonton, Alberta, has produced the world’s first engineered wood fibre mat to replace fibreglass components in cars. Origin Materials has repurposed a rubber plant in Sarnia, Ontario, to produce one component of traditional plastic soda bottles from biomaterials such as cardboard and sawdust. And in Port Cartier, Quebec, Bioenergy AE Côte-Nord Canada is building the world’s first commercial facility to convert sawmill residue into 40 million litres of renewably sourced heating oil per year.

The forest sector is evolving, providing new ways for forests to benefit all Canadians. Increasing innovation in the sector is producing new renewable and sustainable bioproducts, such as carbon foam, bioplastics and biocrude, which are all part of diversifying the forest sector and expanding the bioeconomy.

Empty transparent plastic soda bottles.
Biomaterials such as cardboard and sawdust can be used to create bio-polyethylene terephthalate (bio-PET), a component in traditional plastic soda bottles.
Sources
Photo credits
  • 3D printing machine. Photo by kynny/iStock by Getty Images.
  • Photo of engineered wood fibre mat courtesy of TTS Inc.
  • Plastic Bottle. Photo by MiguelMalo/iStock by Getty Images.

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2019. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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