While Canadians have a healthy respect for forests, few might imagine the breadth of new and surprising applications of wood and its components, such as material for making clothes and lightweight plastic equivalents, material that is transparent or bullet-proof, or material for filtering and desalinating water.
What allows the development of these applications – which go far beyond the traditional uses in construction and paper – is taking advantage of the mechanical strength and flexibility properties inherent in wood.
“It’s a marvellous material made by nature and perfected by evolution,” says Orlando Rojas, an internationally renowned expert in bioproducts and biosystems, who will join the University of British Columbia (UBC) in December 2019 as Canada’s Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts. “Growing trees in a sustainable way can contribute to climate change mitigation, and by using wood in the most efficient manner, we can solve a wide range of our material, chemical and energy needs.”
Dr. Rojas will serve as the scientific director of the UBC BioProducts Institute, where investigations into bio-derived products and energy sources advance three objectives: climate change mitigation, economic development and scientific discovery.
“Very few endeavours are equally strong in all three areas,” says James Olson, professor and dean of UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science. “In the transition from the current fossil-fuel economy to the future advanced bio-economy, we are not only looking to replace fossil fuels with biomass. The real opportunity lies in taking advantage of the complexity and diversity found in nature.”
This area of research is particularly compelling for UBC because of its deep science component, says Dr. Olson. “For example, genomics and synthetic biology can inform the deconstruction and functionalization of biomass that will be key for the bio-economy.”
Forestry is one of Canada’s most important manufacturing industries, accounting for 7.2 per cent of all exports, injecting roughly $24.6-billion into the economy and employing more than 200,000 people across the country, according to The Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, minister of Natural Resources.
“With the bio-economy market expected to grow to as much as $5-trillion by 2030, clearly the faces of forestry are changing,” he says. “You’ll still find loggers, sawmill operators, biologists and tree planters. But increasingly, you will also find Indigenous-led companies, biochemists, engineers, physicists, architects and computer programmers – as the face of forestry evolves to mirror the diversity of Canada itself and the potential of our forests.”
UBC’s role in helping to shape this future builds on the university’s 50-plus-year history of working with forest industry partners, which has resulted in a “strong and technically sophisticated sector,” says Dr. Olson. “Generational investments have enabled research excellence and world-leading infrastructure at UBC.”
It has been Dr. Olson’s mission to “bring together the leaders in this innovation ecosystem with a common vision and a shared research agenda.”
Strong partnerships are required to translate research into impact, believes Robert Larocque, senior vice president, Forest Products Association of Canada. “Canada is leading the transition to the bio-economy, and the forest industry has invested more than $500-million in this field in the last five years,” he says. “We need a three-pronged innovation approach that consists of supporting research and development, de-risking new technologies and facilitating access to new markets.”
Mr. Larocque adds the forest products sector is poised to be part of the solution for addressing climate change by supporting the shift toward sustainable biomass and bioproducts, such as biofuels, tall wood buildings, biochemicals and biomaterials.
B.C.’s pulp and paper producers have also joined forces to support research and technology development at UBC in partnership with FPInnovations. Bob Lindstrom, spokesperson for the BC Pulp and Paper BioAlliance, says, “We are in a global innovation race to develop new bioproducts. Through the BC BioAlliance, a regional innovation cluster with support from the federal and provincial governments and GenomeBC, the industry focuses on four development themes, including renewable natural gas from biomass.”
By building on B.C.’s high-quality forest resource base, utilizing a highly skilled workforce and over $15-billion in valuable mill infrastructure, the sector is well equipped to diversify into clean, sustainable bioproducts and markets, says Mr. Lindstrom.
Another partner is BASF Canada, and Irene Yang, director of the organization’s business development, says, “As a leading global chemical company, we look for innovative product solutions that meet our customers’ needs and help us achieve our global sustainability goals. There is an impressive amount of ground-breaking innovation going on in Canada’s bioproducts sector and that is a conversation we want to be a part of.”
Dr. Olson believes these collaborations have galvanized a tremendous momentum, allowing UBC’s “success to shine, especially over the last two and a half years.”
Supported by grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, UBC has secure equipment valued at over $16-million, and recruited Dr. Emily Cranston as UBC’s President’s Excellence Chair in Forest Bio-products, and Dr. Rojas.
With over 60 experts conducting active research across the entire value chain, from genomics to nanocellulose materials that could be used in airplane design, UBC is the largest, most productive and highest quality research group in this area – it is also among the best in the world, says Dr. Olson.
“Our research also has a strong economic development component, and much of that economic development will take place in rural Indigenous communities because this is where the resource is,” states Dr. Olson. “For us, biomass means forestry, and the question is how we can convert all parts of the tree into high-value materials and products, which translate into high-paying jobs and economic revitalization.”
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