U of Toronto researches bark biorefinery process

By Lisa Gibson
The University of Toronto will use a portion of an $8.2 million award from the Ontario Research Fund's Research Excellence Program to develop a bark biorefinery that will produce green adhesives and biobased foams from tree bark.

Associate Professor of Forestry Ning Yan and Professor Mohini Sain are leading a multidisciplinary team in developing the process. "We will be using extraction, separation and purification for turning barks into adhesives," Yan said, adding that hydroxylation will convert the bark biomass to biobased foam. "The biobased foam with controlled foam structure can be used in building, construction and automotive industries as more environmentally sound alternatives for traditional petroleum-derived foam products," she said.

The team is in the early phases of project development, focusing on fundamental research and bench-scale technology development for intellectual property generation, which is crucial for scale-up and demonstration efforts, according to Yan. The team aims to have some products ready for pilot trials in four to five years with the help of its partners: FPInnovations, a forest bioeconomy development company; the Woodbridge Group, a foam technology provider; Huntsman Corp., a differentiated chemicals manufacturer and marketer; Arclin, a provider of bonding and surfacing solutions; St. Marys Paper Corp., a paper mill; Tembec Inc., a paper company; and AbitibiBowater, which produces newsprint, commercial printing papers, market pulp and wood products.

The process can use any bark, although compositional differences among different species may make some candidates better for certain products, Yan said. "We are certainly very interested in Canadian species including bark from mountain pine beetle-infested trees."

The project received $1.75 million and could have significant impacts on forestry, along with the automotive and chemical industries, according to the university. "Bark contains other niche specialty chemicals that can have antimicrobial and neutraceutical/pharmaceutical applications," Yan said.

If the project proves successful, it would provide a method for converting a waste residue available in large quantities to commercially viable and value-added products with value-added market potential, Yan emphasized. It can be implemented in existing forestry operations to complement the product portfolio. "It also identifies another stream of waste nonfood biomass resources that can be utilized for bioproducts development, offering more options and easing some of the constraints due to demand on biomass feedstock," she said. "Further developing nonfood feedstock to high-value chemicals and functional materials is fundamental to this project."