Developing high performance bioplastics from wood

Tamar Atik
January 02, 2019
Written by Tamar Atik
CEO Darrel Fry at the Natural Resources Canada – Industrial Materials Institute.
CEO Darrel Fry at the Natural Resources Canada – Industrial Materials Institute. Photo supplied
Jan. 2, 2019 - In the pursuit of mitigating climate change, one B.C. company has developed a method to make bioplastics from wood. But rather than another bio-alternative for plastic straws and containers, Advanced BioCarbon 3D Ltd (ABC3D) is creating a wood-based engineered grade high performance plastic.

Canadian Biomass spoke with chief executive officer Darrel Fry and environmental scientist Kim Klassen to learn more about this innovative process.

“People often think of bioplastics as single-use with low-value functionality, but our products are incredibly high-functioning with exceptionally high heat resistance while being lightweight,” Fry said. “As an example, our goal is to be able to 3D print something like a piston for your car from this material – there’s such high heat resistance, and it’s also very strong.”

The company’s focus is on addressing the broader issue of climate change, rather than the over-production of single-use plastics, Klassen said. “If we have extreme weather events happening all the time, it’s going to interrupt every part of society. So, climate change, above all other environmental concerns, is important and that is what this company addresses through product development, through sustainable bioplastics made from renewable resources.

“Our products are carbon negative, so that’s not just reducing the impact on climate change, we’re actually helping to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.”

ABC3D makes its products from wood chips by extracting the resins from wood. “Using a closed-loop manufacturing system, we are able to produce a sustainable product that is non-toxic and renewable,” Klassen said. “The process uses green chemistry and starts with wood chips from the forest industry that are mixed with a solvent and put through a series of pressurized heating and cooling phases to extract the resin from the wood chips. All solvent from the manufacturing process is put back into the system to be reused again.”

This technology was developed by ABC3D’s founders Hélène Bélanger and Ross Prestidge who researched the process for more than a decade. The production of commercial resins is not new but it’s the quality of the resin that the company is producing that creates these advanced sustainable materials.

The company currently operates a pilot plant and is working to scale production to have retail sales of 3D filaments available by the first quarter of 2019.

ABC3D’s head office is located in Rossland, B.C., but the wood to plastics process takes place under the same roof as MIDAS (Metallurgical Industrial Development Acceleration and Studies) Fab Lab in Trail, B.C., which is an applied research, commercialization and digital fabrication training facility.

Being an on-demand print centre, the MIDAS Fab Lab is one of ABC3D’s target customers and in their target client market. They are currently testing the product with ABC3D, while Selkirk College and ABC3D were recently awarded a $300,000 grant from the government of British Columbia’s organization, BCIC Ignite, to purchase equipment for testing and producing filaments. Besides on-demand print centres, other target clients include the 3D printer manufacturers themselves and OEM (original equipment manufacturers) suppliers.

Other verification and development has been done by the National Research Centre Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI) in Boucherville, Que. “The feedback from them is that they were happy with the results they received from their testing,” Fry said. “The project results, in their words, were, ‘well above their expectations.’”

The company is currently using hardwood trees to make its products, so Fry said they aren’t competing with the forest industry for fibre.

“There currently is no viable market for those hardwood trees,” he said. “We’re actually helping to create a new market for fibre. The cost to the forestry companies is already there to cut down and process unwanted species, so what we’re saying is, they’ll still have those costs, but now they’ll have an opportunity where they can continue to harvest that tree, take it out of the forest, and bring it to market.”

The process also works well with softwoods and future testing will reveal the exact methodology required to extract the highest quality resins from those species.

After demonstrating the process to a 10 tonne scale per day of wood chips, the next goal is the commercial scale (in two years) where volumes are expected to reach 60–250 tonnes of wood chips a day.

“We are targeting to have our sales in 3D filaments start in the first quarter of 2019 and then roll out a number of different filaments with additional characteristics such as carbon fibre reinforced filament, conductive filament and filaments that are reinforced with other wood fibres, beyond our first products, which are a blended traditional printing filament,” Fry said.

“Our company is proving that from wood we can make sustainable, economical, high performance plastics,” Fry said.

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