FibreCity takes another step toward reality

September 11, 2012
Author: Winnipeg Free Press

SLOWLY but surely, the groundwork is being laid for Winnipeg to become a global centre for a biomass manufacturing industry.

The fact that such an industry does not exist anywhere in Canada is just another detail the Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) -- which is at the heart of those efforts -- is working through.
Wheat's new?

PRAIRIE Pulp & Paper Inc. was successful in landing a $383,000 grant from the federal government to continue to prove the science behind its new wheat straw-based paper product.

The grant award was announced at Thursday's Composites Innovation Centre event.

Last month, Prairie Pulp & Paper's chlorine-free, sulphur-free Step Forward Paper was introduced into the retail market in Staples stores in Canada.

The paper is made in India, but the company's long-term strategy is to be able to use locally grown wheat straw -- that might otherwise be burned as stubble -- to mill into paper at its own Canadian manufacturing site.

Company chairman Clayton Manness said the results of the current retail experience will be crucial for its ongoing efforts to attract investors to eventually finance the $500-million investment needed for the manufacturing facility.

On Thursday, the CIC received another $860,000 from the federal government, part of which will be used toward establishing the world's first bio-fibre grading and testing facility that is being called FibreCity.

This kind of a testing and data centre could become a global hub as the industry develops.

Since 2003, the CIC -- funded by the federal and provincial governments as well as through third-party research -- has spearheaded all sorts of innovation in the use of composites with industry partners in the aerospace and ground-transportation industries.

It's at the leading edge in the research and development of composite materials using fibres from Prairie-grown commodities such as hemp and flax.

It has helped figure out how to make composite parts using locally grown hemp and flax fibre combined with resins and pressure-baked into a hard, lightweight material for everything from bus, tractor and motorcycle parts to speakers and snowboards.

Sean McKay, the CIC's chief executive officer, said even though there is good evidence bio-fibre composites could make many products, there is no industry in place to turn it into commercial products that are readily accepted by industry and consumers.

"Significant technical and logistical gaps existed in the supply chain," McKay said. "Through numerous local, national and international collaborations and projects we have deliberately been filling in these gaps."

For instance, manufacturers that use fibreglass composite know it has consistent properties.

Industry needs to know the exact durability and tolerance of biomass fibres if it wants to incorporate such products in commercial production.

"The problem we have with the industrial adoption of natural fibres such as those grown from flax and hemp plants is understanding their properties as they grow and are harvested, recognizing there is significant variation due to soil conditions, weather, crop variety, to name but a few," said McKay.

Significant software-data collection and complex scientific analysis need to be established to build FibreCity's grading capability.

Despite progress that's being made in the development of a range of products with a number of industry partners, another major gap in the supply chain is that there is no manufacturer in the region that can mix the fibres and resins into a mat that would eventually be used to craft the parts and products.

Part of the CIC's recent round of federal financing, from the Agricultural Innovation Program's $50-million fund, will be used to find a Canadian (ideally a Manitoban) manufacturer, preferably located in a rural community, that could supply a variety of bio-fibre mats to local parts manufacturers.

Ron Koslowsky, Manitoba vice-president of Canadian Manufactures and Exporters, said manufacturers love anything that can be produced that is light and strong and made from sustainable materials.

He said if there were a local producer of the bio-fibre mats there would be all sorts of spinoff opportunities.

"If we could develop materials with unique and special capabilities, the odds are that we could leverage that by building products made out of those materials right here in Manitoba," he said.

Share This Story


"Significant technical and logistical gaps existed in the supply chain," "Through numerous local, national and international collaborations and projects we have deliberately been filling in these gaps." - Sean Mckay, CEO, CIC