Building B.C.'s future ... with wood
July 13, 2012
By: The Vancouver Sun
In resource towns like Castlegar in the West Kootenay, the future of B.C.’s forest industry is already starting to unfold.
It’s all about sustainability and it’s on display in the lower emissions, shrinking environmental footprint and diversified revenue stream at Mercer International’s Celgar pulp mill, one of a number of B.C. mills that is beginning to tap the province’s forests for new bio-products — from energy to bio-chemicals.
The drive for a sustainable future, particularly among the developing nations, is expected to lead to more reliance on biofuels derived from what used to be termed wood waste; lighter vehicles and aircraft made from cellulose composites; and new demand for wood, rather than concrete or steel, as the building product of choice.
What’s unfolding at Celgar is just the beginning, said David Gandossi, Mercer senior vice-president. What began as a symbiotic relationship between the sawmilling sector and the pulp sector half a century ago is evolving into a new bio-economy.
“Round logs and square lumber mean there are residual chips left over,” he said.
The chips went to pulp mills, which converted them to northern bleached softwood kraft, the best pulp in the world. With emerging economies using more tissues, high-grade papers and similar products, demand for NBSK is increasing.
B.C.’s pulp mills, once considered dinosaurs that would be pushed to extinction by modern southern hemisphere mills producing pulp from eucalyptus, are in the enviable position now of producing a limited-supply product into a market that is expected to grow far into the future.
And then there is the bio-economy.
“What the bio-economy is bringing along is technological innovation, which means you use more of the wood and you get more value from it,” said Gandossi.
“The first wave has been to produce electricity. When we cook the wood chips, 50 per cent of the wood becomes cellulose and 50 per cent is left over. It’s essentially a young fossil fuel. It just hasn’t been around for millions of years.”
Mercer, which also owns mills in Germany at Rosenthal and Stendal, is already moving into the next wave: the bio-refinery concept, where mills will produce pulp, green energy and bio-chemicals that will drive the future bio-economy.
As a sign of what the future holds, Mercer vice-president Brian Merwin owns a pair of sunglasses made from a corn sugar derivative called polylactic acid, a plant-based plastic.
“In the future, there’s no reason why these glasses couldn’t be made from sugars found in wood,” he said.
Produce own electricity
The foundation for the coming bio-revolution in B.C. forests is the pulp industry.
Combining sawmilling, pulp production and cogeneration results in 75 to 80 per cent of the energy contained within the forest resource being captured and used in production and electricity for the grid.
Mercer considers the Celgar mill a perfect candidate to become a bio-refinery, having undergone an $850-million rebuild in 1993. The resulting debt burden forced it into bankruptcy and Mercer bought it in 2005 for $210 million.
Mercer has since spent $100 million on upgrades aimed at increasing production, reducing effluent in a new process that separates chemicals from the waste and recycles them back into the plant, and most importantly, generating enough heat and power for its own energy needs and for the power grid.
Fuelled by black liquor, a byproduct of the pulping process, the Celgar mill is producing 70 megawatts of electricity. Forty MW are used internally in the manufacturing process and another 30 MW are sold to BC Hydro through a 10-year electricity purchase agreement. Mercer designed the generators to have a capacity of 100 MW, giving the plant an additional 30 MW of electricity capacity for future growth or to sell on the grid.
The different forest industry sectors are working together collaboratively and with government, Gandossi said, to map out how to accelerate the emergence of the bio-economy. Bio-economy is defined as using the cellulose and chemicals contained within wood to produce a wide range of products from the forest, from polymers to biofuels, as an alternative to fossil fuel-derived products.
In the process, more value can be derived from the timber resource.
“Everyone is talking about the new opportunities,” he said. “What can we do to make sure that B.C. takes advantage of the opportunity in front of us?”
The forest industry has identified four components essential to the industry’s future survival: attract talent, improve competitiveness, transform the existing industry into one that is rooted in the bio-economy, and supportive government policy to improve hosting conditions for investment.
The transformation is not restricted to the pulp sector. Sawmills, too, are looking at what was once considered waste and producing energy from it.
At Nechako Lumber, a 1.3-MW turbo-generator built by Pratt & Whitney and fuelled by sawmill and forest waste is under construction. It will provide heat and power for the grid. West Fraser Timber is developing two of the Pratt & Whitney units, producing a total of 13 MW of power at its Chetwynd sawmill.
“With carbon and biomass, we are beginning to realize that we have been piling all this slash at the side of the road, letting it decay or burning it. That actually has some value and we should be looking at that and seeing if we can materialize that value,” said John Innes, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C.
Cellulose uses explored
The future forest industry will not just rely on power as a source of additional revenue, he said. It will make better and higher-valued use of the forest resource. It can be as simple as cutting logs to lengths specified by lumber customers, or as complex as developing new industries based on building housing components, rather than just selling lumber.
“Companies are beginning to say, ‘We have different grades of timber, we have different values of timber, we should be sorting it a little better and marketing it better,’” said Innes.
Bio-energy is part of the platform that is producing new revenue streams for pulp mills, but the future and as-yet-untapped uses of cellulose are truly exciting, said Alan Potter, executive vice-president of FP Innovations, the forest sector research arm.
“There is a whole range of new products where we are just scratching the surface,” he said. “I can imagine that the glass window I am looking through right now in the future could be made from reconstituted cellulose material. I would just have to press a button and instead of having to use these blinds that gather dust, it goes dark or light depending on how much of an electrical field I put through it. And if there were an earthquake, it’s not going to shatter and have shards going all through the room.”
FP Innovations has partnered with Domtar on a bio-technology plant in Quebec that is already producing nano-crystalline cellulose, essentially a super-refined form of cellulose that has properties at the nano-level totally different from regular cellulose.
One of those qualities is strength, and Potter said the drive to sustainable resource use could lead to cars and aircraft being made from wood products — not in the way the old airplanes were actually made of wood, but from new cellulose composites that are stronger than metal.
B.C. is well-positioned to move into this new era of forestry, Potter said, but he adds one important proviso: if the products are to be developed, they must come from forests where sustainability is not just a slogan. It must be real.
“We are still going to need the traditional forester because one of the underpinnings here is that we are saying wood and its byproducts can be used as sustainable materials,” he said.
“But frankly, that whole story really holds water only if you can look people in the eye and say you have sustainable forests behind it. That’s clearly critical. And that’s one of the advantages B.C. has. It has a very diverse and sustainable forest.”