Editorial: Thinking big about the bioeconomy
By Kristina Urquhart
When FPInnovations announced in September that it had successfully developed a filtration material comprised of wood fibre for single-use, biodegradable face masks, the news made national headlines.
It was a good opportunity for the public to consider some of the non-traditional ways we can use cellulose to replace petrochemicals.
Whether outside the pulp and paper industry or within it, conversations about the bioeconomy have been heating up ever since I joined this magazine two years ago. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis is increasing the chatter – many manufacturing industries are exploring new opportunities to diversify their supply chains and consumer bases.
With demand for some products, such as newsprint, in steady decline, Canada’s pulp and paper sector is one of the industries that needs to make some changes in order to stay competitive.
In its 2019 State of Canada’s Forests report – which was released in May 2020 but collated from 2018 statistics – Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) says weak demand decreased the real GDP for pulp and paper in 2018 by 1.3 per cent, to $7.84 billion, compared to the year prior.
Demand for pulp is expected to offset that decline a bit, but the agency advises that mills diversify their paper grades and move to more low-carbon projects that support the bioeconomy, such as cellulose nanocrystals production and/or lignin extraction.
That’s what TMP-Bio is doing for Resolute at its Thunder Bay mill, which produces newsprint and market pulp. The demo plant, a collaboration with FPInnovations, treats 100 metric tonnes of biomass per year to produce lignin and sugars that can be used in resins, animal feed additives and other bioproducts (see p. 22 of our new issue).
There is funding available for these types of projects. For example, the $23-million TMP-Bio project included $5.8 million in federal investment, plus contributions from a range of other stakeholders.
In July, NRCan announced an $82.9-million, three-year funding round for the Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, which will bring low-carbon projects in biomaterials and biochemicals to commercial scale.
Mills must diversify their paper grades and move to more low-carbon projects that support the bioeconomy, such as cellulose nanocrystals production and/or lignin extraction.
The industry needs to think outside the box when it comes to finding these new revenue opportunities, says Dr. Orlando Rojas, director of the University of British Columbia’s Pulp and Paper Centre and scientific director of the school’s BioProducts Institute. He recently sat down with me (virtually, of course) to record an episode for Pulp & Paper Canada: The Podcast (listen here).
Dr. Rojas, who recently joined UBC after a stint at Aalto University in Finland, suggests Canada look to its counterparts in Scandinavia for inspiration.
Metsä Fibre is currently working on the project engineering for a biorefinery in Finland. It would turn an existing pulp mill into a “bioproducts mill” capable of producing 1.5 million tonnes of pulp per year, plus materials for bioproducts.
The new mill, which will get the go/no go sometime this fall, would feature fossil-free operations and 250 per cent self-sufficiency in electricity.
There is plenty of R&D happening in North America, too, and I’m pleased to highlight some of these fantastic projects in our new issue of Pulp & Paper Canada, which is focused on innovation. Check out a green repulping technology (p. 20), a biopolymer project (p. 18) and a new way to optimize energy use in kraft pulp mills (p. 14).
And if you’re working on an innovative project that you think the industry should know about, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.