As the demand for energy and plastics continues to grow, the pressure to identify renewable resources for the production of such materials is increasing, and an area where Canada has clear advantages in supplies from agriculture and forestry assets Using Canadian biomass that does not compete with the food chain to replace petroleum sources in the development of plastic parts for the transportation industry, packaging or even in construction, is of strategic importance to Canada’s bioeconomy growth, environmental sustainability and job prosperity. 

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Canada’s premier Research and Technology organization, is a leader in this scientific research. For more than 10 years, NRC scientists have developed innovative technologies to do exactly that: transform Canadian agriculture and forestry residues into value-added industrial bioproducts. They have collaborated with Canadian companies along the supply chain from biomass producers, to plastic processors, and end-users to fill the technical gaps for transforming and making biomaterials accessible to the market.

Among the important developments at the National Research Council, the conversion of lignin into a broad spectrum of polymer products for multiple industrial sectors has presented remarkable results. In wood, the lignin can be seen as the glue; an organic substance binding the cells, fibres and vessels which constitute wood. Lignin is the second most abundant renewable carbon source and also a by-product at chemical pulp mills used almost entirely for its low fuel value. “Using lignin, which until now was considered a waste, to replace conventional petroleum-based polymers is opening new opportunities. Contrary to polymers made from petroleum, whose production is very chemical and energy intensive, the transformation of lignin from black liquor does not emit CO2 but in reality, it consumes CO2. In addition, lignin’s aromatic molecular structure, which provides better mechanical properties and chemical resistance, makes it distinct from other biomasses.

Those features alone have brought multiple advantages to lignin-based materials. The lignin-based polymer products are not only cost-competitive and cost-effective but also are more environmentally-friendly as compared to petroleum-based counter parts. Proven plastics with lignin are varied, such as rigid insulation foam, flexible automotive seating foam, molded part, construction sheet and panel, plastic film and fibre (as described in Figure 1). They can be formulated and processed in conventional equipment without any problems.

More recently, the National Research Council and Domtar have worked together on lignin-based thermoplastic product proof-of-concept leading to the commercial scale demonstration in Domtar’s Quebec-based operations and application developments with funding support from Natural Resources Canada. A new technology has been emerged from this project that allows the conversion of wet lignin containing over 30 per cent moisture into plastic films in a very cost-effective manner. This technology opens new higher value markets for biomass products and enhances competiveness for Canadian manufacturers able to produce greener plastic products. Undoubtedly, it will also create new economic activities and employments in Canada. The future can only be greener and better as a result.