The next few years will be a very exciting time for college and university students and recent graduates to join Canada’s forest products industry.
Why? Three little hyphenated words: bio-energy, bio-chemicals and bio-products.
“Today, the products that are generating revenue for the forest products industry are still the traditional ones,” says John Schmidt, Principal Scientist at FPInnovations, one of the world’s largest private, not-for-profit forest research centres.
He’s referring to the wood and pulp and paper products that each of us encounter in our day-to-day lives. But, he adds, “the new products are just around the corner.”
A recent study led by the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), with FPInnovations, Natural Resources Canada and scores of economic and scientific experts, called The Future Bio-pathways Project, found that there are enormous economic, social and environmental benefits to integrating new bio-technologies within the traditional forest products industry, not to mention staggering potential global market sizes – an estimated $200 billion by 2015.
“When you enter the doors of a pulp mill today, you’re not just entering a place that makes one product,” says Catherine Cobden, Executive Vice President of FPAC, whose background is in chemical engineering.
“Over time, they’re going to make more and more sophisticated bio-products, and all of these new products can be based on what used to be our waste stream, utilizing the bark, small limbs and waste wood material to turn it into value-added products. For every tree we harvest, we are trying to get the maximum yield.”
Today, virtually 100% of every tree is used to make something and some mills are even powered by bio-fuel created from their own wood waste.
Bringing these new products out of the lab and manufacturing them on a larger scale will create good jobs for young people from all educational backgrounds.
John says it will involve a number of the same disciplines that have always been involved in the forest industry, such as chemistry and chemical and mechanical engineering, but the greatest number of opportunities will lie in roles that can better integrate bio-products, chemicals and energy into existing facilities and then optimize their production, as well as those that can help the industry and its customers better understand the applications of these new products.
These are some of the roles that are likely to be involved in the production of these new bio-products:
- Forest Products Processors execute the high-tech processing tasks in mills
- Process Engineers use computer systems to design, operate, control and optimize chemical, physical and biological processes
- Chemical Engineers design and develop chemical processes and equipment to transform raw materials into useful products
- Sales Representatives sell the forest products industry and the innovative products it produces
- Control Systems Specialists maintain the hardware and software systems in a facility and look for ways to improve processes
“You might have some training in the traditional processes, but you’re also going to be working at the interfaces between industries that, until recently, didn’t have much to do with each other,” he says. “That’s just part of what will be waiting for someone who starts a career in forest products today.”
The interfaces he’s referring to include, for example, the forest products industry working to produce bio-fuels that will heat homes, or with the automotive industry to make extremely strong, light alternatives to oil-based plastic that can be used to build cars – not to mention textiles, food additives, cosmetics and much more.
One of the most important emerging technologies in the industry right now is nanocrystalline cellulose, also known as cellulose nanocrystals. “Last year, in the mill of one of our member companies, we built a demonstration plant to manufacture about a ton of cellulose nanocrystals per day,” John says. “Canada is leading the world by producing cellulose nanocrystals on this scale – no one else has the capacity to make it on this scale and we have an advantage being the first in the world. Now we have to continue to press forward to find all of the appropriate applications for this material.”
Thanks to these innovative new products, the forest products industry is also helping to shift our society toward a more sustainable way of life – a huge plus if you’re a student or recent grad who wants to have a positive impact on the environment, like University of British Columbia Genome Science and Technology student Baillie Redfern.
Photo credit: Laura Thorne