The Resolute Forest Products plant in Thunder Bay will soon be home to a pilot project that could transform the forestry industry.
With federal government funding of $5.8 million announced on Monday, FP Innovations and Resolute Forest Products will be developing a $21-million project to extract bio-chemicals from wood that could replace petroleum-based chemicals in common products such as plastics and insulation.
The facility would be the first of its kind on a commercial level and if it is successful it could create an alternative way for Northwestern Ontario to keep the forestry industry viable.
Remi Lalonde, general manager of the Resolute pulp and paper facility in Thunder Bay identified challenges facing the forestry industry such as the ongoing softwood lumber dispute with the United States and duties on newsprint exported across the border.
“As we think to the future and what we’re going to be, it’s important that we invest in development and create a path forward and have alternatives for the industry to remain viable,” said Lalonde.
The new thermo-mechanical-pulp bio-refinery will be constructed within existing buildings on the Resolute property. Equipment is being built from scratch, explained Stephane Renou, chief executive officer of FP Innovations, a non-profit organization involved in scientific research to further the Canadian forestry industry.
“I’ve been told all the mechanical will be installed by the end of this year and we’ll start commissioning, making all the parts work, next year,” said Renou.
Then, the facility will focus on breaking down wood chips into two basic components, sugar and lignin. Lignin, explained Renou, is essentially the glue that holds the fibre together in the wood.
“We take those two chemicals and put it back in the supply chain and reconstruct other products like plastic,” said Renou. “The entire array of chemicals from the petroleum industry, we can reconstruct them from the basic chemicals in wood.”
The next step will be developing a market, explained Renou.
“We need to transform the pulp and paper industry, but we need also to transform the other side, the ones that use those chemicals, we need to find the right match,” said Renou.
Lalonde said there already is an established market for the sugar component that is used in the production of other chemicals. Currently, he explained, the mill burns lignin extracted during the pulp process to help generate power.
“We have to find a good commercial opportunity for the lignin part for which the market is less mature than the sugars,” said Lalonde. “At this point, commercial application for this particular technology is probably many years away.”
Both Lalonde and Renou were unable to say how many jobs this new facility could create, with Renou explaining that more people will be brought on as the project advances.
Patty Hajdu, the federal minister of employment, workforce development and labour, said that a viable future for the forestry industry ensures people have good, middle-class jobs.
“People who work in the forestry industry typically have well-paying jobs with benefits and a pension. These are the kinds of jobs we’re trying to protect,” said Hajdu, who made the funding announcement on behalf of Navdeep Bains, of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Minister responsible for FedNor.
Hajdu said the funding gives a boost to the work that is already being done in the areas of resource extraction in the north.
“It allows it to happen more quickly and opens up new markets and ensure we keep economy thriving here in the north,” said Hajdu.
FedNor’s Northern Ontario Development Program contributed $3 million to build the plant with $2.8 million coming from Natural Resources Canada through the Softwood Lumber Action Plan to help operate and support research at the new pilot facility.