Wood industry is going through difficult years, but it could be saved by the composites market.
Undermined in recent years, the Quebec forest industry could well have found its hope of salvation... in plastic. Composites combining wood fibers and polymers represent a promising and potentially profitable market for forestry companies, waiting for the moment that science offers them more guarantees.
"There are substantial gains to be made in all plastic markets. If one is able to put the wood fiber in a product, the cost is reduced, hence has great potential," said Ahmed Koubaa, professor at the University of Québec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Chair of Canada Research on revaluation, characterization and processing of wood. He has supervised several graduate students who are interested in wood-plastic composites and whose works were presented Tuesday at Montreal, in the Congress of the ACFAS.
He says a ton of plastic costs between $1,000 and $2,000, while the same amount of wood fibers may be paid $400, often less. Since the proportion of wood fibers within a composite is generally around 50%, this avenue can bring significant cost savings for many industries, including automotive and aerospace.
For the forest companies, there is a "promising future" because it allows profitable chips and sawdust from timber processing, but also bark and waste generated in paper recycling.
"Before, for a given volume of logs, there was a certain amount of chips that was used for pulp and paper. Now, as the demand for newsprint declined, much of these chips are not used, so business owners send it to the production of energy (biomass) or other applications that are less profitable than paper" says Koubaa." Forest companies are therefore looking for contractors or applications for these chips".
No doubt in the mind of the researcher, the wood-plastic composite is a potentially paying niche, provided there are buyers. And this is precisely what is lacking at the moment, it slips in the absence of a proper marketing.
Research and Development
The forest economist of the Federation of Quebec forest producers, Vincent Miville, considers that the use of wood fiber is a "future road where we must recycle". He noted that the possible applications of composites are "exponential", but the market is not yet sufficiently well established to be run.
That is why the federal government has invested $100 million in a program established in 2010 to promote the "commercialization of innovative technologies and processes". This program was extended for four years in February, with an additional $90 million.
In Quebec, paper maker Kruger, based in Trois-Rivières, for example, received financial aid of 15 million to develop the use of filaments of cellulose, derivatives of the wood fiber. The example of CelluForce, made by Windsor, who is struggling to sell its nanocrystalline cellulose, invites to caution.
In its 2012-2017 strategy to transform the Quebec forest products industry, the Quebec government has reported that "the development of products that take advantage of timber's chemical properties is important" since "the demand for products incorporating timber in various forms is growing".
M. Miville inclines in this direction, but he believes that the use of wood fiber will remain complementary for many years. "I'm not willing to bet that timber will leave its place soon".