Somewhere between nanotech, earthquake-resistance and cosmetics lies the wood-driven future that Rick Jeffrey, CEO of Coast Forest Products Association — which represents the forest sector along British Columbia’s coastline — evokes when he talks about innovation in the sector.

Nano-fibers and cellulose plucked from the microscopic natural glues that hold wood together could be used to make plastics in everything from circuit boards to make-up and new techniques are looking to build seismic activity-resistant buildings out of wood.

“When you go into a sawmill or pulp mill there are as many computer programmers as there are labourers now,” says Jeffrey. “It’s all highly computerized.”

“We’ve had to innovate in order to respond to the changing market needs.”

But it’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, one need only look at the economics of the forestry sector in Canada, says Jeffrey, to understand the importance of constant evolution.

In 2012, the forest sector generated just shy of 236,000 direct jobs and contributed $18.7 billion to the country’s GDP. Canada is the second largest exporter of primary forest products in the world.

And the growing importance of carbon management and energy efficiency coupled with rising costs and stiff competition for the attention of foreign markets means the forestry sector in Canada has to get crafty to keep their heavyweight belt.

“We’ve had to innovate in order to respond to the changing market needs,” says Jeffrey.

Take China for instance — 10 years ago, the Eastern country wasn’t even on the radar.

“Today China represents 25 per cent of our market,” he says. “We’re also on the cusp of trying to break through to India.”

But expansion is equal parts aggressive marketing and finding ways to make attractive new products from wood.

The cutting edge

Enter FPInnovations, a not-for-profit formed in 2007 through the amalgamation of the top research institutes focusing on pulp and paper, wood products, forestry techniques and wood fiber.

"When you go into a sawmill or pulp mill there are as many computer programmers as there are labourers now."

Today, one of the pillars of the not-for-profit’s research is pushing the boundaries of building with wood, says Pierre Lapointe, president and CEO of FPI.

“It’s a totally new market for engineering wood in North America,” says Lapointe.

He points to the University of British Columbia’s planned SALA building — an 18-storey tall wood building that will be LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) due to it’s sustainable nature.

Then there are the 135-metre access bridges for mining projects in Northern Quebec being built from wood.

“The beauty with some of those bridges is you can construct them in a matter of one week,” says Lapointe. “If you look at North America in both cases for the tall buildings and the bridges you’re looking at billion dollar markets.”

Looking forward

The durability of wood as a building material is becoming increasingly important in earthquake-plagued zones nestled on the tectonic plates like Japan and the West Coast.

“Especially for an area like B.C., wooden buildings perform way better during seismic activity then cement and concrete,” says Lapointe.

But perhaps the most curious innovation to come out of FPI surrounds cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) extracted from wood fibers and cellulose filaments (CF) extracted from wood pulp.

FPI has developed a sustainable process that uses only mechanical energy to produce CF, which can then be utilized to create more flexible and durable packaging, paper, plastics, adhesives and composites.

CNCs on the other hand, can be used in bio-plastics and polymers, as electrically conductive membranes and as additives in paints, among other things.

“It all comes back to the question what is the use of wood in modern society,” adds Lapointe. “(It’s still) the same wood, it’s just a new product and new process.”