Extracting sugars from hardwood could help Port Hawkesbury Paper attract plant investment and new jobs and provide a new sustainable industry for rural Canada, a conference heard Friday.
Tom Browne, program manager with FPInnovations, was speaking at the Atlantic Biorefinery Conference held at the Verschuren Centre at Cape Breton University.
“There are lots of pathways from sugar to biochemical and certainly if you go talk to the chemical industry, particularly the European chemical industry, they have a very strong interest in identifying sustainably harvested non-food sources of sugars,” Browne said.
Many Canadian forests are certified as being sustainably harvested, he noted.
“Canadian wood has a real opportunity here, so if we can make sugars from wood, there are customers, lots of them, I believe.”
FPInnovations is a not-for-profit pulp and paper research and technology institute. It has been working with Port Hawkesbury Paper, owner of the Point Tupper paper mill, on the sugars project.
A Port Hawkesbury Paper official said earlier this year they hope to move ahead with a demonstration sugar extracting operation within a year. The mill has commissioned an engineering study that is nearly complete for the plant, which would be located at the Point Tupper mill site.
The sugars would be used to make non-food products, such as biodegradable plastics. They can also be used in products such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.
Any sugars that would be produced would have to be competitive on price, Browne noted.
FPInnovations looked at where in Canada the project would make the most sense.
“Discussion also has to involve who is interested in pursuing this, and Port Hawkesbury stepped forward,” Browne said.
The process that FPInnovations has developed would make use of newsprint machinery that hasn’t been used since Port Hawkesbury Paper bought and reopened the mill in 2012.
“What’s nice about it is it’s a relatively simple process that makes use of idled newsprint assets,” he said.
The plant would run on hardwood, which is often underutilized, Brown noted.
“In mixed forests, in fact, the people that want the softwood for lumber or for people find the hardwoods in the way,” he said.
They have also been speaking with chemical companies who have a strong desire for sustainable sugars, Browne said.
The project could help the forestry industry transform itself more quickly from production of newsprint or higher quality paper to biochemicals, he said.
“(It could help) rural Canada create some sustainable industries to support rural communities, as paper sort of heads off into history,” Browne said.
The process is not yet commercial and some challenges remain, Brown said. The capital cost of the plant would be relatively low compared to a facility like a chemical pulping plant, he added.
Building a demonstration plant would be the next step, to get large-scale samples into the hands of potential users and to fine-tune the process. If successful, a commercial plant could follow, Browne said.