Material World

After seven years, Dan Madlung is on the verge of an overnight success. The president and CEO of BioComposites Group (BCG) is working with major automotive companies, such as Toyota and General Motors, to replace plastic and fibreglass components in their vehicles with his company’s flagship product Terrafibre – a composite material made from wood and agricultural fibres.

“This is ground zero for an entirely new industry for the province,” says Madlung. “There’s a lot of potential in these new products and a lot of benefit to Alberta.”

Madlung has a long history of finding innovations in agriculture and forestry. Prior to BCG, he worked for a handful of major companies in the forestry sector across Western Canada, dating back to 1985. In 2006, he struck out on his own as an entrepreneur and to this day continues to be a partner with Silvago Partnership, a forest seedling company.

Being deeply involved with the forestry industry, Madlung knew about European and Asian companies using plant-fibre products. The more he learned, the more he saw an opportunity that was seemingly built for Alberta. In the province, 44,000 acres of hemp is grown annually and the plant’s stock can grow upwards of 12 feet in length.

“In Canada, hemp is only grown for the seeds to be used in things like breakfast cereal and stock is seen as a waste product,” says Madlung, pointing out that in Europe and in Asia the stock is seen as significantly more valuable than the seeds because of how it can be processed into a fibre material that has countless industrial uses.

Photograph courtesy of BioComposites Group

That planted the seed for Madlung and he launched BCG in Drayton Valley, a town of more than 7,000 people that’s situated approximately 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

Incorporated in 2010, BCG began filling its first orders in 2017. In those seven intervening years, the company began its research and development into using plants like hemp and wood waste to create a material that could be used as erosion and weed control matting or as a replacement for fibreglass and plastics in automotive parts.

Plant fibres for interior paneling are commonly used in higher-end European cars, such as Audi and BMW, because they are lightweight, which then improves fuel economy and alters the vehicle’s centre of gravity making them easier to handle. But there’s a catch, as these materials typically come with a higher price point.

BCG’s plant-based fibres are at a price point that competes with traditional materials, which has enabled the company to enter into discussions with non-luxury automakers. In addition to the car manufacturers, BCG is also working with Canadian-based farm vehicle companies and international bus manufacturers to replace much of their interior paneling with plant fibres. These companies already had an interest in exploring plant-fibre options and were looking for the right manufacturer.

“Aerospace and automotive are extremely interested in this because it’s a green and sustainable product with countless benefits back to the environment,” says Troy Grainger, executive director of Grizzly Regional Economic Alliance Society (GROWTH Alberta), a regional economic development alliance of 10 municipalities in north central Alberta. “There is a big demand out there and new investment will help eliminate any barriers there are to satisfying that need.”

Grainger adds that one area of potential investment is to add to the province’s number of decorticators. These are the machines that can process bales of hemp and flax stock into plant fibres and currently there is only one in the province.

The province has already looked to advance this burgeoning plant and wood fibre industry by investing $4.5 million in the construction of BCG’s manufacturing facility. The 32,000 square foot facility employs close to 30 people and can produce 10,000 tons of material annually. The factory would need 10,000 acres of stock and wood waste for it to be at full capacity for production.

BCG’s projections for the next two years see the company generating approximately $70 million in revenue and creating 150 new Alberta rural jobs.

Grainger understands that for this new industry to flourish and meet market demand, industry can’t go it alone. Collaboration between producers, industry, governments at all levels, and new investors need to be in line to ensure Alberta continues leading in this new market.

“Virtually anything made out of fibreglass can be replaced by plant-based fibres,” says Grainger. “Companies like [BCG] are already demonstrating how they can be responsive to industry needs.”