Is the sleeping giant waking up?

The Sleeping Giant is off the Lake Superior coastline of Thunder Bay. Photo source: City of Thunder Bay © Valerie Marasco

Mark Willliamson

Government of Ontario seed funding through CRIBE (Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy) is promoting new bio-product and bio-energy projects which may help to turn around the province's forest products industry.

Outside of those projects, new sawmill, pellet mill and pulp mill investments are already creating a more positive outlook.

In a land of such seemingly endless forest resources, it's hard to imagine that the forest industry of Northwestern Ontario would be a shadow of its former self in just a decade. Since the start of the millennium the majority of pulp and paper mills and sawmills strung out along the Trans-Canada Highway from Sault St. Marie to Kenora have been shuttered by economic forces. These include unfavourable currency exchange rates, low cost competition, the sharp decline of newsprint demand and the fall of the US housing market. Fifty percent of Ontario's major forest industry capacity was lost during this period.

But there is some hope of recovery germinating in Thunder Bay, the once mighty pulp and paper town, and the entire Northwest Ontario region. The Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE) has been selectively investing seed money from the Government of Ontario to revitalize the industry. Established in 2009, CRIBE has a five year mandate to invest up to $25 million to assist pulp and paper companies to find new and innovative valued-added revenue streams from forest resources. This is being done by collaborating with research and development organizations, Northern Ontario universities and technology companies outside the pulp and paper industry involved in such diverse fields as automotive parts manufacture, bio-plastics, bio-fuels, food additives, pharmaceuticals and industrial ethanol. As result, forest products research and development work previously done in laboratories is now being applied in demonstration projects using wood fiber, formerly underutilized woody materials and pulp process by-products from real-world processes.

De-risking projects

Lorne Morrow, CEO of CRIBE Lorne Morrow, CEO of CRIBE explains the purpose of the seed money for development projects. "Our mandate is to de-risk projects. All sides win if we can do that." According to CRIBE, their investment dollars have leveraged over five times that amount through investments by partners.
The projects that are approved are scrutinized carefully and for good economic reasons. Morrow adds, " We know that by adding value to the various by-product streams of a pulp mill that mill is going to remain viable and we are doing our job. We look for possibilities to add value to a stream that is being underutilized." He says that if this value can be realized existing jobs will be preserved and new ones may be created.

The way CRIBE does business is very simple and straightforward. "We are not a bureaucratic organization. Our staff comprises two people (himself and program manager Scott Wiebe). We want simple, concise proposals, nothing more than ten pages. Our decisions are fast, less than three months," says Morrow. The decisions are made by a nine person board of directors chaired by a former paper industry executive. A financial analyst, a former R&D director, an allied industry representative and a First Nations representative are included in the board.

Morrow notes that Northern Ontario is now developing a cluster of expertise and talent from the university activities that are being funded by CRIBE. Seven doctorates, four MSc candidates and eighty-three undergraduates are involved in the efforts.

Lignin production scaled to industrial trials

Since March 2011, a lignin extraction demonstration plant staffed by FPInnovations, Canada's national forest products research organization, has been operating at Resolute Forest Products' Thunder Bay kraft pulp mill. The 100 kg/day plant was engineered and constructed by NORAM Engineering and Constructors of Vancouver, BC. The investors and stakeholders in the plant include Resolute, FPInnovations, Natural Resources Canada and CRIBE. Tom Browne, Research Manager of biorefining and energy at FPInnovations, says CRIBE's investment in the project was pivotal. "We could not afford to do it on our own. This investment allowed us to get up to a demonstration plant scale," he says.

The lignin derived from hardwood and softwood kraft black liquor is currently being evaluated by researchers, including those at the local Lakehead University, and some undisclosed industrial users. The potential applications are varied and include adhesives for composite wood products, a raw material for carbon fiber, bioplastics and an alternative to many current petrochemical-based products.

The scale of the plant and the fact that it is taking feedstock from a real life pulping process has advantages according to Browne; "We can work out the operating challenges in a real mill environment. By characterizing hardwood and softwood lignin we hope to be able to tailor lignin to the end user. The valued adding knowledge is how to control the process to meet end user needs." The NORAM designed plant has the flexibility to process the lignin in different ways under different process conditions. The temperature, pressure, residence time and pH can be varied. The scale of the plant allows for meaningful production trials for potential end users. The largest shipment to date was two tonnes shipped in bulk bag "totes".

What is the future for a production scale plant? Browne believes economics for lignin as an alternative to petrochemicals are favorable with persistently high oil prices. But it is still a bit of a chicken and egg situation since a commercial lignin application breakthrough has not been shown yet. Several mills across Canada have been evaluated for scaled-up production plants. Browne believes a 1000 tpd pulp mill could justify a lignin extraction plant of 50 to 80 tpd. The scaled-up production plant drawings have already been done with the assistance of the CRIBE investment.

Lignin extraction demonstration plant at Resolute's Thunder Bay mill. Photo courtesy of FPInnovations.
Lighter car parts

A twin-screw extruder at Magna’s Centre of Excellence in suburban TorontoMagna Exteriors and Interiors, a major Canadian-based automotive parts manufacturer, has initiated a research and development effort to incorporate wood fiber into a thermoplastic matrix suitable for semi-structural automotive part molding processes. Funded by the Government of Alberta through Alberta Innovates Bio-solutions (AI-Bio) and CRIBE, the process development work will be carried out at the suburban Toronto Magna-National Research Council (NRC) Composites Centre of Excellence. Fiber processing and characterization will be done by its research partner Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF). The challenge is to incorporate thermally sensitive wood fiber with typically low polarity polymers and avoid the many failure modes associated with low bulk ultra-light materials while at the same time achieving high mechanical and impact performance with good dimensional stability.

The incentives for fiber-reinforced plastic composites are described by Magna's William (Will) Harney, Executive Director of Research and Development. "Our number one incentive is to support our customers' requirement for weight reduction in their vehicles (hence better mileage). The fiber-reinforced polymer matrix should be at least cost neutral to be attractive and offer the same or better functional properties. Another goal is to develop a composite that could be melted down and reused. Our research shows this can be done several times before the fibers are degraded."

How much weight can be saved and how much fiber can be used in the composite? Harney says that a 40 % fiber by weight polypropylene composite would be at least 15% less dense than the same glass fiber-reinforced plastic part. Magna is working on ways to increase even further the maximum renewable content in a polymer composite which at the moment is above 50 % by weight.

Pulp fiber from several sources in Canada is being screened at Alberta Innovates. "Our goal is to look at different commercially available fiber inputs across the country. We want to understand the relative merits of each fiber type, tree species and develop a robust solution," says Harney. The term commercially available is a key element in their thinking. He adds, "The goal is not to make an expensive product that the market will not bear."

Hog fuel to bio-oil

A demonstration plant at Domtar's Dryden, ON kraft pulp mill will convert chip screenings, presently used as a hog fuel, to bio-oil that will be a supplement to traditional liquid fossil fuels. Battelle Memorial Institute, the world's largest private R&D institute, is Domtar's partner and the developer of the fast pyrolysis technology that converts biomass to bio-oil. The process is expected to be very energy efficient. The project will be implemented in two phases culminating in a 100 tpd pilot plant at Dryden. Again, according to CRIBE's objectives, a low valued source will be transformed into something with much higher value.

New plastic biocomposites

This industrial storage box is made from GreenCore's biocomposite that contains wood fiber.CRIBE has invested in process development work with GreenCore Composites of Toronto to allow wood fiber to be used in a number of new products including pallets, containers for packaging and building applications. The new production technology will be added to the company's NCell ® technology which produces biocomposites that replace energy-intensive fiberglass reinforced plastics.
NCell composites have been successfully piloted in many applications, from automotive parts, to rigid containers, furniture, and industrial products with pilot sales in industrial and consumer markets. The company is also working with automotive OEM's and suppliers in Canada, the USA and Japan for the replacement of heavier materials and those that generate more carbon dioxide in their manufacturing processes. GreenCore's ability to replace up to 40% of synthetic polymer content with wood fibers provides weight savings of up to 20% compared to traditional glass fiber materials.

Whole tree utilization

CRIBE has invested in several other development projects which will demonstrate how forest resources can be used to their maximum economic potential by using the whole tree. Researchers at Lakehead University will develop techniques to extract hemicelluloses, lignin and bark extracts from forest biomass with the partnership of G2 BioChem at their Centre of Excellence in Chatham, in Southern Ontario. The end products will be biochemicals, biopharmaceuticals, and industrial ethanol. In another biochemistry project, the former THESIS Chemistry (now Vertichem) in Cambridge, Ontario has been refining lignin for compounds to be used in food flavoring, fragrances, pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals and dye products. Last year, THESIS was acquired by Vertichem to extend its biorefinng capability.

To optimize the performance of wood pellets as an energy source for biomass fueled energy processes Atikokan Renewable Fuels will investigate various additives, including lignin. The company will be a supplier to Ontario Power Generation's 211 MW Atikokan thermal power plant which is now being converted from coal to biomass.

Also relating to biomass energy, CRIBE will help to fund a Bio-Energy Research Centre at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. The centre will be equipped with a 150 KW boiler for the study of bio-energy and training of students in the growing field. It will serve as a learning resource for several remote First Nations communities who are planning to replace diesel generators with small biomass driven power generators.

The wood construction industry is also covered by CRIBE investments. At Laurentian University's school of architecture in Sudbury, Ontario a demonstration building will show the merits of solid wood and cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction.

Lignin is being transformed into a variety of eco-friendly biochemical products. Photo courtesy of Vertichem
Region on the upswing

These projects may take some time to develop their full economic potential. The traditionally cautious industry will be waiting for some breakthroughs to realize that the potential for increased revenue is there. But the seeds have been planted and many companies and research organizations are working with a defined purpose to see that the seeds prosper. To underline these efforts Resolute and Domtar have expressed their confidence in the future by acting as host mills and partners.

In the meantime, the region is showing some signs of revitalization. Based on positive trends in the US housing market Resolute Forest Products will build a new $50 million sawmill in the Atikokan area and will continue an upgrading project and restart an idled sawmill in Ignace. Last November, Resolute announced plans to build a $10 million industrial wood pellet plant in Thunder Bay to supply Ontario Power Generation's biomass thermal station in Atikokan . Also, India's Aditya Birla Group recently purchased and has restarted the Terrace Bay NBSK pulp mill and will convert it to a 280,000 tpy dissolving pulp mill by 2016.

The Sleeping Giant – a landmark symbol of Thunder Bay - may be waking up.

This article is based on an article entitled "Planting the seeds of recovery" published in the April 2013 issue of Pulp and Paper International (PPI) Magazine. It is re-published with the permission of PPI.