Owen Miller tells an intriguing story: it links the past to the present, with the prospect of a happy ending.

It began in 1974 when Owen’s grandfather, Conrad, was plant manager at the old Northwood Pulp & Timber sawmill in Princeton, British Columbia. While at work one day, Conrad noticed a damaged section of 2 x 4 lying in the millyard. As he removed it, he mused: “There’s got to be a way of putting that board back together again.”

It’s turning out, his instinct could well be right.

Now, in 2023, Owen Miller is president and project manager of Deadwood Innovations Ltd, a close-knit team of lumbermen and entrepreneurs based in the historic village of Fort St. James on the shore of Stuart Lake, about 60 kilometres north of Vanderhoof, in central B.C.

Deadwood Innovations has launched a pilot project to test the commercial feasibility of a method designed to upgrade damaged wood fibre. The potential feedstock includes low grade and under-utilized wood, and includes fibre damaged by insect infestations and wildfire.

log quality

Deadwood Novel Oriented Strand Lumber produced from softwood burned in the 2018 Shovel Lake fire in B.C.

Deadwood Innovations’ pilot is a science-based method that would help a regional forest industry meet a raft of major challenges it’s facing across its operating spectrum.

It was a very different forest industry in Conrad Miller’s day. Still to come were the diverse implications of a warming climate; timber supply shortages; soaring operational costs; unprecedented supply chain bottlenecks; pan-industry labour shortages and a world-wide health pandemic.

Conrad Miller and his brother, Don, had always demonstrated a flair for ingenuity and invention.

“They collaborated on numerous equipment and process innovations through the years,” recalls Owen. “In the early 1960s, they built and operated their own mill north of Fort St. James.” The pair designed and built a 10-inch gang saw when others were struggling with reliability issues in the six- and eight-inch double arbour designs, he adds. “Their design was the first to use thin kerf saws and a unique guide system that improved cutting accuracy and ultimately sawmill throughput. Before this, reciprocating gang saws were the standard.”

Don Miller went on to establish Central Mill Design, a well regarded sawmill engineering company.

Things have a tendency to come full circle in Fort St. James. It was Don Miller who was instrumental in designing the Tl’Oh Forest Products building in Fort St. James where Deadwood Innovations’ pilot project is now underway.

Tl’Oh’s finger joint plant was a fixture in Fort St. James, providing steady employment for about 40 people and benefitting the local economy. The plant opened in 1995 and was a joint venture between Apollo Forest Products, a division of the Sinclar Group, and the Nak’azdli Whut’en band in Fort St. James. The finger joint plant closed permanently in 2015 due to market forces and fibre source uncertainties.

The Nak’azdli are supporters of and partners in Deadwood Innovations’ initiatives.

Owen outlines the process under development in the pilot project. “We accomplish wood modification through an application of a proprietary biomass-derived lignin solution, mechanical forces and temperature. Applying a unique sequence of concurrent forces, our mechanical process fractures low quality and small diameter whole logs (non-sawlog grade) without length shearing,” he explains.

log quality

A top view of one of the primary machines in the Deadwood Innovations pilot plant.

“When temperature and pressure are applied, the lignin-treated fractured log undergoes a chemical process that modifies the natural cellulose structure and imparts structural properties that Mother Nature didn’t.”

In simple terms, the process improves the log’s quality and grade.

“The result of the reaction produces a fibre to fibre bond at a molecular level,” he explains. “The process is species and quality agnostic, therefore provides the opportunity to improve feedstock utilization, avoid emissions through atmospheric combustion, sequester the carbon and increase forest resource value extraction.”

Deadwood Innovations’ process can be used in the manufacture of a broad range of upgraded wood products, anticipates Owen.

“We’ve produced boards of various dimensions and densities with promising results. During the pilot process we are learning and generating the necessary process data,” he adds.

The analysis will help determine a product portfolio. “Longer term, the University of Northern British Columbia’s Wood Innovation Resource lab and FP Innovations will continue performing strength and durability testing aligned to eventual structural certification.”

Assistance through the pilot development stage to date includes help from the federal government’s Natural Resources Canada; the province of B.C. through the Indigenous Forest Bioenergy program and Northern Development Initiatives Trust, a regional advisory committee funded by the B.C. government.

Key members of the Deadwood Innovations team in Fort St. James includes Steve Illerbrun, Daniel Rix, and Rob Ubleis. Owen credits several others in the Fort St. James area who have rallied around Deadwood Innovations and supported its pilot project engagement. These include Owen’s dad, Jerry, for his contributions to the grassroots development of Deadwood Innovation’s work and forming the inter-generational link with Conrad Miller. Jerry Miller began working engineering revisions of Deadwood’s concept back in the 1980s. “Another team member who—like my dad—is a primary reason for our success is Jamie Gordy, in Mackenzie, B.C. for his contributions and 30 years of experience in the wood sciences field,” adds Owen.

The process has been challenging—but the development team anticipated that it would be. “But we’re making progress every day and that’s very exciting,” enthuses Owen. His grandfather would doubtless agree.

Deadwood Novel Oriented Strand Lumber produced from softwood burned in the 2018 Shovel Lake fire in B.C.

Jim Stirling

Author

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