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By Tony Kryzanowski
Alberta Innovates’ long-term and ongoing support for cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) research and commercialization has yielded a made-in-Alberta discovery involving CNC-infused biofilm that could revolutionize treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in medical facilities everywhere.
This was just one of several announcements at a recent workshop hosted by Alberta Innovates (AI). Participants shared updates on numerous advances being made through AI’s longstanding support for CNC and lignin research and commercialization—part of the provincial research and innovation corporation’s strategy to advance economic diversification in Alberta
“Alberta Innovates has long seen the research, development and commercialized production of CNC as key to adding value to Alberta biomass and in turn strengthening the forestry sector, an industry that so many rural Alberta communities and workers rely on,” says Steve Price, Executive Director of Bioindustrial Innovation at Alberta Innovates.
CNC is a novel biomaterial derived from wood fibre, often touted for its remarkable characteristics. For example, it has valuable optical properties, as demonstrated by this biofilm breakthrough.
A team of University of Calgary researchers, under the guidance of Prof. Belinda Heyne, has applied for a patent related to technology where very small dosages of CNC are applied to paint used in medical facilities. When the CNC-infused paint is exposed to light, it has the effect of killing all known antibiotic-resistant germs on hospital walls. They have also developed a coating for hospital bed curtains.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely the micro-organisms could evolve to survive this exposure, since destruction by light is an entirely alien approach to what bacteria usually encounter, Heyne explains.
Alberta Innovates provided a seed grant of $25,000 to help develop the product at the U of C. It then contributed a matching grant of $403,750 under its Alberta Bio Future research and innovation funding program so that researchers could pursue development of a commercial product within three years. The researchers have succeeded as they are now seeking a patent.
Pulp producer Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) is an industry collaborator with AI on CNC research and development, and sees the business opportunity that this advanced biomaterial offers. Through work being conducted at the CNC pilot plant at InnoTech Alberta, an applied research subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, scientists have been able to improve CNC yield from 15 per cent in 2014 to 68 per cent in 2019. This has lowered production costs considerably. Even better outcomes are expected within the next two years.
Given these results, Al-Pac is proceeding with the design and engineering of a CNC production plant at its pulp mill near Boyle, Alberta, with the aim of beginning to produce this material by 2021.
Workshop attendees were informed that there are already 10 products containing CNC in the market in Japan, and there is ongoing investigation into its potential uses by 38 corporations and 14 pilot plants.
Alberta researchers are also investigating other medical uses for CNC to infuse it into bioadhesive hydrogels to aid in the delivery of drugs in the treatment of esophageal cancer.
Scientists have generally known about CNC’s potential to enhance the performance of existing commercial products for some time. But over the past decade, considerable effort has been made to test whether CNC is safe and how easily it can be manipulated and incorporated into existing products. Conventional cellulose, from which CNC is derived, already has widespread use. But CNC, as a new biomaterial, still requires significant scrutiny for potential toxicity. That work is ongoing, but according to Dr. Jo Anne Shatkin with Vireo Advisors, a company testing CNC in a variety of applications, “there are no red flags yet.”
Efforts to realize CNC’s full potential across all its functionalities have been mixed. While it is believed to be as strong as steel at one-sixth the weight, U.S. Forest Service scientist Dr. Alan Rudie told workshop attendees that “no one has gotten the strength out of the (CNC) crystal yet,” and achieving that breakthrough seems quite far off.
However, research and application development supported by Alberta Innovates is leading to discoveries that take advantage of CNC’s many other attributes.
Alberta Innovates supports research related to opportunities to commercialize both cellulose nanocrystals and lignin. This has spurred several university research projects related to these novel biomaterials.
For more information, contact Julia Necheff at Julia.Necheff@albertainnovates.ca.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Canada’s commercial forest is changing where managed, or second growth, forests are becoming more prominent.
The challenge now is how to maximize growth response over the shortest time period from this wood fibre in a sustainable manner, while developing a resilient and where applicable, multi-species and multi-aged forest, that maintains an ecological balance and manages risk.
Over the past two decades, the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) has developed, validated, and demonstrated a variety of successful partial harvest, commercial thinning and silviculture techniques in natural stands that can help forest companies achieve these goals.
These techniques can be applied in both coniferous and mixed wood managed stands, using conventional logging equipment and applied in a manner to address specific local industry and/or landowner management objectives.
“There needs to be an adaptation in our approaches simply from the perspective that managed stands have specific designs that are more systematic than a natural forest, and promote specific species or crop trees that are given preferential treatment in the management,” says Derek Sidders, Project Manager, Technology Development and Transfer at CWFC. “So there should be an expectation of an increase in efficiencies like reducing rotation ages and maximizing site productivity.”
Based on its collaborative development and applied research with industry, provincial governments and academia conducted within existing Crown forest allocations, CWFC can advise on how to effectively deploy partial harvest systems that use parallel machine corridors in the cutblock to intermittently harvest the merchantable overstorey while protecting the valuable understory. It is left to grow to maturity and then harvested, when deemed appropriate, by using a new machine entry corridor.
The process simply becomes a perpetual forest management cycle that maximizes the site’s commercial potential.
“A dedicated machine corridor allows you to minimize ground disturbance, while accessing all the commercial timber, yet maintaining or establishing new growing stock, thus increasing values on the site long term,” says Sidders.
In concert with a partial harvest plan, CWFC can recommend commercial thinning techniques in high density stands to enhance piece size of remaining stems over a shorter time horizon, maximize health and values, and where applicable, achieve variable species and age retention to address ecological or environmental issues. This is all in response to achieving objectives related to sustainability, diversity in fibre and stand values, and building forest resilience in response to a changing climate.
Within this partial harvest scenario, CWFC is also able to present industry with a variety of selective site preparation techniques and tools, as well as regeneration systems. These reduce the number of trees required to establish fully stocked stands, reclaim corridors, stagger stand age, and both enhance and maximize stand productivity where either an understorey or overstorey has been retained on the site. Techniques include high speed mixing, horizontal bed mixing, elevated bed mixing and mounding, using site prep tools that can be installed on either a standard excavator or on a small prime mover that can maneuvre within a partially harvested block. This is followed by the planting of seedlings of preferred species to enhance the stand.
“We have completed a variable retention program in stands representing a variety of different mixed wood complexes, followed by site preparation, planting, and monitoring of the growth response,” says Sidders. “We have 15-year research results that show phenomenal tolerate softwood growth in the understorey of hardwoods.”
Overall, these techniques have been demonstrated in six Canadian provinces and territories, in eight different bio-geoclimatic zones, in both pure softwood and mixed wood stands.
For more information about these partial harvest, commercial thinning, and site preparation techniques and tools, as well as related results, contact Derek Sidders at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tim Keddy at email@example.com.