The future of wood may not be wood.
Right now there are three streams into which wood goes: lumber, paper, energy. You build houses out of it, you make newspapers and toilet paper and cardboard out of it, you burn it in chunks or as pellets.
But there is more that a tree can produce. The science is already well down the road of finding those uses. Instead of buzzing saws or boiling vats, though, these wood products are being figured out with microscopes. Trees are full of fats and oils. Those might well be more valuable for making plastic substitutes than a 2×4 or sheet of plywood was ever worth.
If California has its Silicone Valley built on a concentration of tech products in the San Francisco region, the Quesnel Future of Forestry Think Tank (FFTT) implicitly asked why the Cariboo area couldn’t be the wood equivalent, with the tech just as high?
Matyas Kosa took the stage at the FFTT and provided an example of how this has already started. Kosa is the byproducts lead for West Fraser, a wood products company that already has a broad package of wood ventures in and around Quesnel, and Kosa is in the thick of those activities, but he has next to nothing to do with making a 2×4 or sheet of plywood.
Instead, he handed out some baggies and vials to the audience. He told them they had names attached like Amallin, LignoForce, Propel. There was a bit of liquid and a couple of handfuls of plastic pellets, or at least that’s what they looked like.
Kosa explained that Amallin is in the test phase of being an ingredient in asphalt, but most commonly it is in use already as a plywood glue.
“I’m happy to report we are on track to fully commercialize it. In fact, we’re pretty much there. We are our largest internal customer.”
Propel is a developmentally early “cellulose-reinforced plastic composite…suitable for compounding, injection moulding, and extrusion applications…It has really good mechanical properties. Whenever we test it, customers are surprised by how much lighter it is. And the second thing is the much faster turnaround time; it’s a much quicker process.”
These alternate products make a tree that much more valuable and utilitarian, but the science is in its early stages. Companies in other countries are also putting wood’s organic components under the microscope and are coming up with similar results. It makes for exciting collaborations, on one hand, but also sets up some potential competition on the other.
“You really have to roll up your sleeves and get in there. It’s a complicated process. Every little bit matters,” said Kosa, who is almost gleeful about the possibilities. “There are many more applications (for deep-science wood materials). We are in pursuit of that.”
It takes a company like West Fraser, with large-scale wood inventories, a variety of applications already underway, and the financial resources to invest in the research.
It’s not cheap, and the progress towards an actual product to sell or use at the end of the research is painstakingly slow, but Kosa said once a step is achieved, it can’t be un-achieved, so it’s a solid stepping stone to the next discovery.
“Once it’s done, it’s perfect, 100 per cent,” he said. “It’s complex on technology, and even more complex on scale-up, but it’s doable. I’m hoping it’s a success story moving forward.”
West Fraser Timber is a widespread company. It already calls itself an “integrated forest company” and has operations all over B.C., Canada, the U.S., and in Europe. Where the science gets done will inevitably be in a number of places, but the FFTT audience was hoping to hear a particular tidbit of knowledge, and Kosa, without making any promises, acknowledged the company’s original hometown.
“We would like to scale up, here in Quesnel, eventually,” he said.