Bioproducts, wood waste and other plant materials converted into everything from glues and textiles to plastics and artificial sweeteners – are widely viewed as a huge economic opportunity for Alberta, and work is already underway to help identify and develop markets for these products.

PROJECT: West Fraser’s Lignin Recovery Plant

One of the high-profile projects advancing the evolution of Alberta’s bioproducts sector is West Fraser’s $30-million lignin recovery plant at its pulp mill in Hinton, a town of nearly 10,000 people a little less than 300 kilometres west of Edmonton at the foot of Jasper and the Rocky Mountains. The commercial-scale plant is the first of its kind in Canada and was completed last year.

Lignin is extracted during pulp manufacturing operations and is then repurposed as a renewable substitute for synthetic resin components currently derived from fossil fuels. Alberta Innovates – an arm’s length provincial government agency working with different industries to spur innovation – invested $3 million into the plant.

Steve Price, Alberta Innovates executive director of bioindustrial innovation, says that prior to the upgrade, lignin was used to generate power for the plant, “but now West Fraser is recovering a portion of the lignin and generating a new revenue stream.”

The most promising application for repurposed lignin to date has been as glue for wood products, such as glulam beams. In a collaborative research and development effort, specialty chemical provider Hexion has determined it can use up to 20 per cent of the new plant’s lignin in its adhesives.

“Many companies are seeking additional revenue streams in order to diversify in what is a cyclical industry. They’re also looking to improve their environmental performance, and we believe business arrangements such as that between West Fraser and Hexion open the door for other initiatives,” says Price.

In this regard, he views West Fraser’s lignin recovery plant as a significant milestone in the growth of the Alberta bioeconomy. The technology has the potential to be adopted by all pulp mills in Canada, which provides not only an economic opportunity but an environmentally friendly opportunity as well, considering every tonne of recovered lignin prevents a tonne of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Price points out that other potential applications for lignin include green chemicals, thermoplastic composites and additives.

“This is the first of many applications; another possible one is lignin as a bonding agent for asphalt,” he adds.