Volume 4, Issue 20, Spring 2003, ISSN 1498-8135
Manitoba Fibre Conference Will Help Stimulate New Industries
The Hemp Report's Arthur Hanks explores AgFibe 2002
In 1995, the first Straw-to-Gold Conference was held in Winnipeg. Presenters from Canada, the US, and abroad discussed the value of using residual straw in industries such as pulping, "agri-board", and ethanol.
In creating new value-added industries in rural communities, these industries would have a welcome economic impact, and by reducing the frequency of stubble burning, they would have an environmental one too.
In 1998, this progressive and sustainable vision was made into a reality by Isobord Enterprises -- a $150 million CDN manufacturing plant built in Elie, Manitoba. Using a new formaldehyde-free resin, Isobord aimed to process 200,000 T of straw annually into eco friendly particleboard.
At the same time, there was a lot of talk about hemp. While commercial growth didn't even begin until 1998, as the decade progressed there was much heady, visionary talk about hemp's promise. At hemp symposia across the land, Isobord was seen as a positive example of what could be possible, what could be done, with agfibres. Certainly, hemp processing plants could only be a few years away.
(Facing west at Portage and Main, Winnipeg, MB)
* * *
A half decade later, Western Canada's fibre sector is still struggling to establish itself.
Despite market gains, the Isobord plant had engineering problems and could not control higher-than-anticipated operating costs. After a few years of operation, it sought bankruptcy protection and spun 100 employees out of work.
In the interim, Manitoba also saw the failure of the American company CGP to build a hemp fibre processing plant in Dauphin, MB; producers were left on their own, holding almost 12,000 T of baled hemp straw in inventory.
Canora SK's Durafibre, a flax straw processor, experienced its own unique processing and quality challenges, prompting majority owner Cargill Ltd to sell off its stake in 2002.
And in Alberta, smaller particleboard manufacturers relying on wheat straw and fescue have also experienced many difficulties over the past half decade.
Other ventures, such as Prairie Pulp and Paper and Alpha Fibre, have not progressed further from the conceptual.
Given the spotty record of these ventures, is agfibre processing still worth exploring in Western Canada?
(Above: Isobord, now Dow BioProducts, was the first major fibre venture in Western Canada. As seen, stacked straw bales are covered from the elements with a tarp; the bales are also stacked on a low platform to protect bales form surface moisture.)
Several hundred people-producers, researchers, and figures from business and government-gathered in Winnipeg on November 12-15th for 2002's AgFibe 2002 conference to find some answers.
* * *
A conference like AgFibe 2002-focusing broadly on all useful and available agfibres such as wheat straw, linseed flax straw and hemp-allows people to put their heads together over shared problems. As participants were drawn from several disciplines---almost 30 speakers---a deep pool of knowledge was created that made for a stimulating, exciting treat.
(Left: Fibre Processing, image courtesy of www.pihg.org. All natural fibres, such as hemp, flax, wheat straw and others share commonalties.)
The sessions established many commonalties: proper fibre identification, storage, handing, and logistics were among the most important issues raised. The costs of implementing these industries from the ground up were explored. New processing technologies were presented. And we learned something more about what downstream fibre buyers and manufacturers require, want, and think.
* * *
Successful fibre processing is not simply a question of growing fibre, processing it, and selling it to willing, rich, and indiscriminate buyers downstream. A successful fibre value chain links growers, processors, and buyers into a form of continuum that allows for a steady, continuous supply. Manufacturers, such as the auto sector who are following Europe's lead with the incorporation of agfibres into their designs, want Just-In-Time delivery (JIT), regularity of supply, and consistency of quality within their required specifications. They don't want surprises.
Ellen Lee from Ford Motor Co. outlined some of the car maker's experimental work with natural fibres to date, including hemp fibres grown in Canada. Ford is attracted to using natural fibres as a replacement for fibre glass, because of their low density and weight, high stiffness, and their relative affordability. "Cost savings are very important to Ford," said Lee.
But according to Lee, at this point the automaker has various technical questions about natural fibres that have yet to be answered; from a planning standpoint, availability of supply and quality are other important issues they need to consider. Like anything novel, natural fibres carry their own risks, and from Ford's point of view, the automaker hasn't found its comfort level yet.
(Left: Dow BioProducts from the employee's parking lot.)
Brenda Colgrove from Dow Bioproducts (http://www.dow.com/bioprod) explained their operations at the rescued Elie, MB particleboard plant. Since taking over operations in summer 2001, Dow has made significant changes in processing. For example, according to Colgrove, "One of the first things we did was lessen the moisture content (of straw)." A lower moisture content of the straw meant less binder and a higher production rate. To help ensure quality, Dow has also changed its fibre collection and storage practices. They are learning as they go.
You can see some of the changes. Driving by the plant on Highway Number #1, you see that their bales are now covered and are mounted off the earth. (Pay no attention to the tumbled mess in the field next to these new neat rows )
Dow also made marketing changes: the plant's tree-free board (Isobord), is now renamed and relaunched as WoodStalk. The company has also inked a promotional deal with the Manitoba-produced PBS television series, The Router Workshop, to help showcase the product. Some woodworkers already claim that using WoodStalk has helped reduce tool wear.
(Right: The guys from the Router Workshop in action; another Canadian-made product for an American market)
* * *
Geof Kime from Ontario's Hempline (www.hempline.com), who has grown and processed hemp fibre since the mid 1990s, had a number of useful things to say about hemp fibre and its place in the manufacturing chain.
According to Kime, when you grow hemp just for its fibre, it is easier to control characteristics, such as yield, purity, and quality. But with hemp straw that is the byproduct of oilseed production, quality can vary more widely.
"Quality assurance is a important part of what we are doing," said Kime.
Dedicated fibre is more useful for advanced applications, such as composite materials or creating new polymers.
For composite applications, Kime noted that fibre purity helps dictate price (which can range between $0.35-0.60 CDN/LB for separated fibre. Core fibre is valued between $0.05-0.30 CDN/LB).
The upside is large: each car made in North America could demand 10-20 LBS. of fibre, and with 15 million cars produced annually, there is potential market for a 3 trillion LBS. Of fibre annually.
(Above: Geof Kime displays the interior of a car panel produced with technical hemp fibres. Automakers are moving towards using natural materials the Ontario-based Hempline is a North American leader in creating new composites with hemp)
Kime reiterated that the general trend is for natural fibres to replace glass fibres, and Canada is in a good position. But for this trend to be realized, high quality targets must be met. As noted, companies like Ford don't like surprises. Ongoing discussions between fibre processors and end users will help ensure growth.
* * *
To Western Canadians, especially producers, the presentation by Parkland BioFibre was of great interest. Parkland BioFibre is the joint venture between Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Co-op (PIHG) and Wales's BioFibre Ltd.
With a large core group of farmers who have been growing hemp since 1998, PIHG has hands-on experience at growing high volumes of hemp with good yields, averaging between 600 and 800 LBS. Of seed, and between 2 and 4 T of straw per acre. In fact, yields of 1500 LBS. Of cleaned fibre an acre are possible.
(Above: Hanging hemp fibre baskets or 'Pot Tops' are one of the many fibre products that could be made by Parkland BioFibre; other products include insulation, mats and briquettes)
"Our desire was to change agriculture," said PIHG 2nd Vice Chairman Chris Dysiak about the project. "We wanted farmers to have a part of the secondary processing. We did not want to ship jobs away to Winnipeg-we wanted this in our community."
For their part, BioFibre is bringing in a turnkey short-fibre processing technology system for flax and hemp. BioFibre's Gary Newmann says that a key part of the plan is the integration of producer and processor. "The short fibre industry is all new, so if you have weaknesses in one area, it affects the whole chain," he says.
(Above: BioFibre's Gary Newmann, Geof Simmons, and PIHG's 2nd Vice Chair Chris Dysiak. The first of many European-Canadian partnerships in processing natural fibres?)
Why are the Welsh in Canada? Newmann claimed that BioFibre is attracted to working here because of the country's agricultural strengths. "We can do it in Wales, and we can do it in the UK. But the costs there are astronomical for us. We think this (Western Canada) is the best place in the world to do it."
Parkland BioFibre's proposed plant, to be built in Dauphin, Manitoba, will draw upon 12,000-18,000 acres for fibre; the plant will have a maximum processing capacity of 48,000 T of straw a year. Fibre will be processed into nonwoven matting, horticultural products such as treemats, landscaping rolls and biodegradable 'pot tops', and also go into insulation markets. Using a closed-loop design philosophy, the plant will utilize all waste, with hemp fines being compacted into heat briquettes, and core fibres being cleaned and cut into premium horse bedding.
(Left: Processing Non-Woven Matting, image courtesy of www.pihg.org; further downstream in the value chain, mats are bonded with recyclable plastic and then compression molded to form components like car shelves and panels)
Big size, many products . . . but are the markets there? Newmann said the lower spec products, such as the horticultural items, are good products to start with while the higher valued end markets are developed.
Insulation is one of the higher-valued products. "A similar product is sold in Europe at 4 times the price," he said. "Hemp based insulation is easy to handle, doesn't itch, and is easy to install. It also combats condensation better than mineral insulation and takes lower energy to produce (under 20% of energy costs)."
With a total capital cost of over $15 million CDN, Parkland BioFibre hopes to begin construction of the plant in 2003.
(For more on this plant's technology see http://www.actin.co.uk/newsletter/issue16/actin16b.htm and http://www.pihg.org )
* * *
Riverton, MB-based entrepreneur, Mark Myrowich, has also been tangling with fibres in the manufacture of erosion control blankets. His company, ErosionControlBlanket.com (www.erosioncontrolblanket.com), has done some work with hemp. In 2000, he did a test blanket installation outside of Brandon, MB. According to Myrowich, "it worked great", but unfortunately the fibre proved too tough for their machinery to process on a regular basis. Currently, the company is working with wheat straw and imported coir fibres-the latter are also tough, but not so tough that a product can't be made from it.
To move forward with hemp, Myrowich needs whole hemp stalk supplied in 8-inch lengths; as a potential manufacturer of hemp-based products, he's waiting for the industry the catch up to him.
* * *
Out in the field, one interesting "home grown" system that showed to great effect was a hemp windrower developed by the University of Manitoba's Ying Chen. The aim of this new windrower is to harvest both seed and fibre, with a goal to avoiding the seed loss seen through combine harvesting. Dr. Chen also demonstrated an infield fibre separator-a modified forage harvester, which successfully separated 60% of the bast fibre from the core. Though there is high potential for improvement, this is a promising start.
(Left: U of M.'s Dr. Ying Chen has been working on an innovative hemp windrower and a field decorticator; for more on her work see http://www.mrac.ca/research/indexprojects.htm and scroll down)
* * *
Dr. Friedrich Munder, from Potsdam Germany's Institute of Agricultural Engineering (www.atb-potsdam.de), presented the Blucher Harvester, which features a pair of rotating drums mounted on front of the tractor that cut the fibre and avoid entanglement. Designed to process both hemp and flax fibre, the rig also harvests grain.
(Right: Dr. Munder: force and stress give processors an alternative to retting fibre.
Dr. Munder also presented a new factory scale fibre processing system that, interestingly, works with unretted "green" flax or hemp fibre. Similar to hammer milling, this new fibre separation process relies on force and rebound stress to separate the fibres. To demonstrate the quality gains, samples on hand showed the difference between dull, grey, retted fibre and the strong, bright fibre produced by this new process.
* * *
All fibre-based industries have unique logistical challenges, relating to harvest, collection, and storage.
Schweitzer-Maudit was the one company at the conference who have experience collecting, grading, processing and shipping agfibres in large quantities. Without much attention, they have sourcing about 100,000 T of flax straw annually from the Prairies for the past half century. The fibre is destined for a New Jersey mill that produces specialty paper, most importantly cigarette papers.
According to Schweitzer-Maudit's Joe Hogue, there is nobody else handling straw on this logistical scale.
(Right: A mobile flax straw rig seen at Tisdale, Saskatchewan, summer 2001; image courtesy of www.ftlcomm.com)
The company has developed a data base system that tries to measure and estimate the amount of available straw in an area. Using this, they forecast availability and quality as best they can. In the field, Schweitzer-Maudit has 5 field supervisors, who work with 3-5 scouts, mostly retired farmers, who help evaluate fields for height, density and weediness throughout the season. Farmers whose fields are "booked" are advised about harvesting, and baling practices. Truckers have their own code to follow, and the company has laid out stacking and storage guidelines. Its a time-proven and refined system.
Schweitzer-Maudit (www.schweitzer-mauduit.com) estimates that they use about 10% of the available flax straw available in Western Canada. There is more than enough for their needs and so they can pick and choose. It is unclear how the company would respond to increased competition due to the development of new fibre industries. That may be a long way off, but when one considers the impact of drought on fibre supply, if a few other processors were also established, that day may be uncomfortably near.
Also it should be kept in mind that most fibre processors collect fibre from a much smaller catchment area. A 60-mile radius from plant is usually suggested as the rule. Schweitzer-Maudit, who ship bales of fibre halfway across the continent to New Jersey, use a field rig to separate the fibres. By getting rid of waste early, the cost of shipping bulky bales of fibres is reduced.
(For more pictures of a flax field rig see http://www.ftlcomm.com/ensign/industry/flax/flaxmachine.html)
* * *
As has been suggested, one major obstacle to growing fibre-based industries in western Canada is the lack of successful role models; related to this is a lack of fibre standards. Standards create a quantifiable measurement of the material in question; accurate measurements influence processing speed, procurement needs and also good harvesting practices. Standards help buyers know what they are buying.
Developed standards would help ease the securing of new markets and lead to increased fibre innovation.
Biolin Research's Alvin Ulrich has spent considerable effort over the past few years on developing fibre standards with Canadian flax straw.
He said that end users need consistency, and being used to synthetic fibres, are not well prepared to deal with the wider range irregularities that natural fibres tend to have.
(ARC's Wade Chute (Left) and Biolin's Ulrich (Right) are helping to create Canada's future fibre strategies)
Useful-to-measure qualities include such traits as core fibre (shive/hurd) content, fibre length, fineness, strength, colour, orientation, and moisture content. Depending on application, some buyers may want to know other qualities as well. Nor will all buyers need to know everything.
Some companies have their own testing and sampling procedures in place, but how well does this work?
"If you keep doing what you are doing, you'll likely keep getting what you are getting," said Ulrich.
Currently, Ulrich, through the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, has been working with American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) on creating flax fibre standards. Much of this work could lead to a similar work with hemp fibre down the road.
* * *
The University of Alberta's Nancy Kerr delivered some of her research on hemp, which in part compared hemp's mechanical properties with those of other fibres. For example, hemp (along with flax and ramie) had a comparable modulus to glass fibre, but had a greater extensibility. The natural fibres were also weaker. On another point of comparison, hemp had a moderate stiffness, halfway between glass and nylon and cotton, but, along with flax, was much more absorptive. However, hemp had a low fiber resilience.
(Right: Nancy Kerr, University of Alberta, has been evaluating hemp fibres since 1998; some of her work is published here.)
Kerr's work also had an agronomic component. Interestingly, from Kerr's point of view, properties of fiber from various cultivars were not significantly different; but there were more significant fibre differences after 120 days of growth as compared to 69 days.
Kerr's call is that, based on its properties alone, hemp can be competitive, and well suited to certain end uses. Kerr is another researcher who thinks that creating standards for end uses will help expand uses for the fibre.
* * *
And still on the subject of hemp, Wade Chute from the Alberta Research Council (www.arc.ab.ca) had generous words for its future prospects in the pulp and paper sector.
Chute explained that pulp sector is wary of the rising costs of delivered wood, and the species limit that the sector is running into. There are not enough trees, timber or wood chips to go around, and Canada is not in a position to import fibre from tropical regions as an alternative; the industry needs a domestic supply.
"All non wood fibres attract tremendous interest, but why has hemp taken much of the limelight (from other fibres) over the past 6-12 months?" asked Chute.
His reasons are both economical and environmental.
Hemp is attractive to the pulp and paper industry because of its potentially sizable tonnage (but it should be noted that, as of yet, fibre yields in Canada to date have not reached the levels achieved in Europe). Hemp's fibre properties- for bast as well as core (hurds)-are in the range of what engineers know about softwoods and hardwoods respectively.
"There is also tremendous energy savings in producing industrial hemp for pulp," added Chute, "Pulping hemp gives a 15-20% savings as compared to pulping hardwoods. Having a lower lignin content is part of this energy savings."
The variability of fibres from bale-to-bale, field-to-field, and year-to-year is something that needs to be looked at. While Schweitzer-Maudit, as noted, has dealt with these issues, its all new to the Canadian forest products sector.
(Left: Plastics, paper or building materials? Separated Hemp Fibres waiting to be processed; Image courtesy of www.pihg.org)
According to Chute, there are two ways to address this variability: either design processes to deal with it, or to find ways to characterize and measure straw before pulping. In other words, be able to gauge straw content before you open up the bale.
And at what price? One economic issue at this point is that the pulp and paper sector needs a slight oversupply; this gives them a comfort zone on price and quantity. The dozen Canadian pulpers located in the Prairie provinces would likely use residual fibres (or agwaste) first, which means that as with flax, producers would primarily gain their revenue from grain. Fibre sales will be a bonus (valued then 10$ per T?).
That is for the short term, at least, until other industries begin wanting the same straw. It's not hard to imagine that producers, seeing the higher value being created from their waste, will want to be rewarded accordingly.
Chute outlined many other concerns, with equipment and processing issues, including fibre separation. Another interesting wrinkle (and this again is something that comes up with other sectors) is that existing industry standards are based on wood fibres and therefore not-so-useful with "fibrous" raw materials like hemp.
But, as Chute outlined, more and more industrial clients are currently investing in applied research on hemp/wood blends, pulp, and 100% hemp papers. These problems are being investigated. The paper sector may be slow moving, but it seems to be moving in this direction.
* * *
On a very positive note, this conference received strong government support from the host province Manitoba. Over the course of the sessions, four provincial ministers addressed participants. Clearly, Manitoba is keen on the potential for agfibres.
"Its important for us to open our minds to what it is we can do with the environmentally- friendly, high value resources that we can have here in the province," challenged Rosanne Wowchuck, Minister of Agriculture and Food.
Part of the reason why fibres are so topical in 2002, is because of energy issues.
Ethanol is widely held as an good opportunity to develop because it has no net CO2 emissions, and it already can be used in a variety of flexible-fuel vehicles on the market today. In fact, ethanol blends can be used by almost all vehicles. Large scale ethanol production will likely play a big part in helping Canada meet its international obligations.
"Lets stop talking about the Kyoto accord, and lets talk about the possibilities," said Tim Sales, Minister of Manitoba's "new look" Ministry of Energy, Science, and Technology, "The forestry industry claim they have already met and exceeded Kyoto targets. They are not talking about Kyoto; they are talking about productivity."
According to Sale, Manitoba has the lowest costs of ethanol production in the country; he says that the province fully intends to follow its new ethanol mandate. "The door is open to speak about strategic opportunities," he said.
One such new player was Ottawa's Iogen (www.iogen.ca), represented at the conference by Patrick Girouard. Iogen is a pioneer in making ethanol with biomass, bioethanol, and have attracted investment from Petro Canada and Royal Dutch Shell.
(Left: Patrick Girouard of Iogen presented his company's plan to build a bioethanol plant in the province; the first of its kind in Canada)
Using a proprietary enzyme-based process, Iogen is looking to start commercial production in the fall of 2003. They have partnered with a new generation co-op to supply straw for the proposed $200 million CDN Killarney, MB-based plant. Past news reports have suggested that farmers will pay $35 per T for straw and the co-op could supply 700,000 T a year (about 700,000 acres' worth).
Other bioethanol interests are being kicked around the prairies, but most ethanol models to date are geared to using seed, not fibre, as a raw material.
* * *
Besides fibre for fuel, it was pointed out that many other atmospheric benefits arise in using natural fibres. ARC's Chute (above) mentioned energy savings in pulp processing. Parkland BioFibre's Geof Simmons asked the UK-based Carbon Trust (www.thecarbontrust.co.uk) to estimate emissions savings when processing hemp fibres instead of mineral-based fibres. Their answer: 10,000 T of hemp fibre meant a savings of 22,000 T of CO2.
As well, fibre-based products could also be used viewed as temporary carbon sinks as they sequester CO2 over their product lifetime. Consider a piece of straw particleboard or a hemp composite: if they hold CO2, what value should it carry for this? Quantifying natural products in this way to create "a green credit" may become important in helping establish new fibre-based industries over the next decade. Just a guess.
* * *
Many people at the conference were characterized as dreamers. I will take this in the best possible ways. As Thoreau wrote, "Dreams are the touchstones of character." It's important to have good company.
What will Western Canada's fibre industries look like in 2010? Nothing is inevitable, and fibre processing-given all the variables present in new markets, unknown technologies, and undeveloped systems, and certainly considering the fickleness of the weather, which could affect fibre supply-is a high risk activity. That information may chill some in the financial sector, but there's always room for a second opinion. So here's one: in a 1998 Global Forest and Paper Industry Survey, conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers, Schweitzer-Maudit International had the highest return of capital for its sector in 1997. And that's globally.
(Right: Driving home)
To sum up, significant progress is being made now with hemp and other natural fibres. Large scale growth will come as role models emerge, research is applied, markets are opened and new technologies developed and invested in. It will come.
Organizers of AgFibe 2002 are to be applauded for putting together this stimulating and provocative conference. Readers should note that there was discussion about having another event by 2004 or 2005. If the agfibre industries can use this year's event as a catalyst to take their ventures to the next level, that would be a conference also worth attending.
For a full list of speakers and abstracts at AgFibe 2002, see http://www.agfibre.mb.ca
For a summary of the first Straw to Gold conference in 1995 see: http://members.shaw.ca/bethcandlish/straw.htm
Thanks to Roncalli O'Brien and Associates, Saskatchewan Hemp Association & Farmer Direct Co-operative for their support on this assignment.
© 2003 HCFR PUBLISHING. INDIVIDUAL ARTICLES REMAIN PROPERTY OF THE AUTHOR (S). NOT TO BE DUPLICATED FOR FINANCIAL OR PERSONAL GAIN. CONTACT US ABOUT REPRODUCTION RIGHTS. CLAIMS MADE BY ADVERTISERS DO NOT IMPLY ENDORSEMENT BY THE PUBLISHER.