​by Catherine Cobden, Executive Vice-President, FPAC

The recent FIBRE conference held in Montreal about the future of academic research into forest products was a good time to reflect back on successes to date.  There is no doubt that tapping into the creative capacity of Canada’s colleges and universities has been a vital ingredient in the transformation of Canada’s forest products industry.  In recent years, they have been a vital partner in realizing the innovative potential of wood fibre at the nano-level, smart packaging, genome-enhanced tree improvement, cellulose-based electronics devices, taller wood frame buildings and more.

That’s why I was delighted to see that the recent federal budget recognized the valued contribution of academics when it directed the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to continue its collaboration with academic researchers in the forest sector.

It’s an important step that will build on a foundation of achievement. It started in 2008, through the collaborative efforts of Natural Resources Canada, FPInnovations, FPAC and NSERC who established the Forest Sector R&D Initiative.  In 2011 the NSERC Strategic Networks launched FIBRE ―which actually stands for Forest Innovation By Research and Education―an umbrella organization for various academic networks and collaborations.

Since then FIBRE researchers have contributed to forest sector transformation by producing highly skilled scientists and engineers; increasing knowledge and understanding in areas critical to the sector; developing new methodologies for managing the supply chain; and generating a pipeline of potential new products.  Success has also come from partnerships and the desire to convert research into new businesses, jobs and wealth through commercialization.

For example, Canadian academics in FIBRE networks worked with FPInnovations in the development of ground-breaking novel materials:   nanocrystalline cellulose, lignin and  cellulose filaments all of which have gone from demonstration plants to commercial-based enterprises.  FIBRE engineers also contributed significantly to the FPInnovations R&D program for taller wood frame buildings by helping to develop sound scientific and engineering arguments. These results have supported changes in building codes, allowing for mid-rise wood buildings in several provinces and ultimately across Canada.

FIBRE professors have also worked directly with Canadian forest industry and global suppliers and customers. Examples include: working with Cascades on antibacterial papers; with SC Johnson on functional hydrogels for household applications; with Lignol on the bio-refinery model and with Weyerhaeuser on lignin-based carbon fibers. Researchers from UNB helped  Tembec  develop innovative high-quality high-yield pulp and FIBRE researchers from UBC worked with Fortress to use enzymes and antibody probes in support of the development of kraft dissolving pulps.  These and many similar examples across Canada are crucial as industry partners provide a direct path to commercialization.

And there’s more.  With funds from Genome Canada, academic research used genome sequencing capacity to looks at ways to detect threats to forests from pests and diseases.  Research has also been done with antibacterial papers for food contact; conductive paper technology, smart packaging with built-in wireless radio frequency electronic sensors and printed cellulose based electronic devices and displays.

In a very competitive world, all this contribution from academics is helping Canada position itself as a leading country in forest sector innovation.  Certainly we can look for more to come.  The FIBRE conference was specifically aimed at charting “the Path Forward” for the next generation of research initiatives that support the transformation of the forest products sector. Considering how the budget commitment ensures continued funding of innovative research by NSERC, that path forward looks bright.