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A project linking public and private sector researchers aims to develop new bioproducts from farm and forest residues to help diversify Canada's agriculture and forestry industries.

Canada's forestry industry is searching for alternative sources of revenue.

Canada's forestry industry is searching for alternative sources of revenue.

Canadian scientists are working hard to give agricultural and forestry leftovers a second life in eco-friendly products.

Under Canada's National Bioproducts Program, researchers are experimenting with residue from crops and wood products to find new environmentally sustainable products that could help revitalize Canada's agriculture and forestry industries.

This material (lignocellulosic biomass) is the stuff that remains when you separate the "wheat from the chaff" — in other words, the lumber from the log and wood chips.

It turns out that turning wood and crop waste into chemicals can not only reduce our reliance on oil and decrease our environmental footprint, but can also grow the economy.

Declining demand for newsprint

At an FPInnovations facility in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, a pressure filtration device isolates lignin from pulp mill black liquor.

At an FPInnovations facility in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, a pressure filtration device isolates lignin from pulp mill black liquor.

This research is being driven by the push and pull of industry. In the last decade, demand for newsprint — which is made from the wood chips leftover from lumber production — has fallen by roughly 50 percent to six million tonnes per year, estimates the project's co-lead, Dr. John Schmidt of FPInnovations in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. (FPInnovations is a non-profit research and development arm for the forestry industry). This is a devastating slump for mills and the communities that depend upon them across Canada.

"The industry is now looking for alternative revenue streams," he says.

Meanwhile, rising oil prices are leading the world's chemical manufacturers to search for cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives to petroleum-based ingredients. And both the agricultural and forestry sectors are looking for new markets for valuable by-products such as wood chips and wheat straw. However, any new applications need to justify the cost of gathering and transporting the biomass residues to a processing facility — just because something is a residue it doesn't mean that it is free, or even waste.

The goal of the National Bioproducts Program project is to discover higher value-added uses for this biomass. Several NRC research teams have joined forces to work on different parts of the project, in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and FPInnovations. NRC's roles range from helping to identify the most suitable lignin for specific applications using state-of-the-art analytical techniques, to applying nanomaterials to reinforce the properties of the new bioproducts.

"No one team has all the answers," Dr. Schmidt says. "Working in partnership means we can come up with commercial uses for these residues that much quicker."

NRC scientists Dr. Jalal Hawari (left) and Dr. Behzad Ahvazi are helping to develop a new lignin-based glue for plywood production.

NRC scientists Dr. Jalal Hawari (left) and Dr. Behzad Ahvazi are helping to develop a new lignin-based glue for plywood production.

Putting more wood into plywood

Working with FPInnovations scientists, NRC teams led by Dr. Jalal Hawari and Dr. Benoit Simard have had success so far in putting more wood into, well? wood. They're extracting a natural binding agent from wood residue (lignin) and using it as a substitute for a petroleum-based glue in plywood production. Small prototypes have already been produced successfully in a laboratory setting, so the next challenge is to figure out if they can be reproduced in mass quantities. To do this, the researchers are leveraging the plywood manufacturing connections of FPInnovations' Forintek Division, to conduct test runs.

Work is also underway to investigate turning sugars in the forest residues into bioproducts. Sugars can be converted into "platform chemicals" — building blocks for use in the production of large-volume plastics such as nylon, ethanol to power cars, and aviation fuel for planes — even diesel fuel for the tractors and logging equipment used to harvest the straw and wood in the first place.

"Tapping into the chemical industry presents tremendous economic potential for the agriculture and forestry sectors," concludes Dr. Schmidt. End