Thunder Bay project points to the future of forestry

FPInnovations and Resolute Forest Products are launching a $17m venture that will produce bio-chemicals derived from wood, as part of an effort to renew the forest products industry.

Building on a partnership that dates back to at least 2012, non-profit FPInnovations and Resolute Forest Products, a paper and pulp producer, are launching the TMP-Bio pilot project in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

TMP-Bio is a patented technology developed by FPInnovations with financial support from Natural Resources Canada, the ministry responsible for the country’s natural resources.

“It’s really the result of a long stream of progressions over the past seven years,” FPInnovations’ president and chief executive Stéphane Renou told Agri Investor. “We put in a team at Thunder Bay for the past seven years to explore a different way of valorizing some of the streams Resolute Forest Products have.”

The TMP-Bio process produces cellulosic sugars and high-quality H-lignin, two fundamental outputs derived from the separation of wood chemical components.

“Cellulose comes from the fibers and lignin is basically the glue that holds the fibers together,” Renou explained. “Those are the two fundamental chemicals, but these two chemicals are the raw material that can feed other streams of chemical transformation.”

Adding streams to forestry

The C$21 million ($17.1 million; €13.7 million) investment covers the cost of capital and R&D and has the support of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, Ontario’s Center for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), Ontario’s regional development agency (FedNor), the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission and Natural Resources Canada, the non-profit said.

“NRCan and other federal and provincial government entities are really interested in this project because it is all about the transformation and adding more value to the forest industry in general,” Renou said, explaining the support a number of government entities are providing for this project.

“The beauty of the economics of this approach is that it doesn’t look at the economics of sugars only”
Stéphane Renou, FPInnovations

One of the key elements of the TMP-Bio process, according to Renou, is that two streams are extracted at the same time. “One stream is lignin, the other stream is sugar and we extract them constantly at an extremely high volume,” he commented.

Having a team in place at Resolute’s Thunder Bay pulp and paper mill has allowed FPInnovations’ researchers to work alongside plant operators and staff in the “reality of a mill environment and mill conditions.”

“The scaling-up aspect is one of the key elements of this investment: figuring out how to scale a process from one ton per year production to 100 tons per year, and providing enough material to test with potential users,” Renou explained. “From there you can go to commercial scale,” he continued. “But you have to be in an industrial environment to be able to understand what it is and to get to that next risk-reduction step.”

Intriguing institutionals

Asked whether transforming the forestry sector could also lead to an increase in investor appetite, Renou responded: “Any investor interested in the forestry sector will be interested in bio-source chemicals derived from wood harvested from sustainably managed forests.

“The beauty of the economics of this approach is that it doesn’t look at the economics of sugars only, which is well established. It looks at the combination of all raw materials that come from wood. We can extract multiple materials and we can play with the price point of all those streams and market them to different industries. So, it’s a diversification, if you will, of the supply to make it more financially attractive.”

Founded in 2007, FPInnovations is the result of the merger of three Canadian research institutes: Forintek, FERIC and Paprican. It is a not-for-profit organization funded by provincial and federal governments as well as its membership.

Resolute Forest Products, which is listed on both the Toronto and New York stock exchanges, has been a long-standing FPInnovations member, according to a spokeswoman for FPInnovations. The two parties formalized their partnership in 2012 when the non-profit installed its Kraft lignin pilot plant in Resolute’s Thunder Bay facility.