These Fibres Are Not "Pulp Fiction"

Chances are that someday this newspaper you are reading will be partly made
of hemp or flax or wheat straw.

At least if Wade Chute has his way.

Chute is a research engineer at the Alberta Research Council, and he's
certain that a blend of wood fibre and so-called agri-fibres is going to
become widely used in newsprint manufacture.

Chute is especially high on hemp, but definitely not in the way that
marijuana smokers are affected by this plant.

In fact, the old lament by dope smokers about being "down to seeds and
stems again" is exactly where commercial growers want to be. They want to
have the stems from which the fibre is harvested.

"If you want to make your pressmen really happy, get them to make it 10 to
15 per cent hemp, and it won't tear," he says.

Because the fibres of the outer layers of hemp plants are longer and
stronger than wood fibre, they can take a lot more tension without tearing.
Hemp is so strong it is used in the manufacture of car doors.

Agri-fibres aren't going to replace wood entirely, but they have the
advantage of being annuals, which means they take a year to grow rather
than decades for a tree. Hemp's nickname is not weed for nothing. Although
it has all the hallucinogenic active ingredients bred out of it, it grows
like a weed.

Other fibres, like the straw from wheat or flax, are either burned or just
turned back into the soil.

Agri-fibres aren't perfect. Hemp fibres still tend to ball up in the
process, which show up as darker spots in the newsprint. Hemp is also
darker than aspen and could require more bleach.

But Chute says all of these problems can be solved with client investment
in research, and imagine the benefits. A good kick to agriculture, a
reduction in the amount of clearcutting in the northern forests and a
product that would be cheaper and could be very competitive on the European

Flax straw is another fibre with great potential, especially for higher
grade products like photocopier paper.

Chute says farmers on the Prairies bury 900,000 tonnes of the straw a year,
and that could be used in a lot of pulp.

The ARC has its own miniature versions of pulp mills and paper machines to
make samples of these products, and it has all the facilities to test the
quality and durability of the product.

The pilot plant is totally versatile for testing different fibres. Chute
jokes that they could probably test oilsands in their mini pulp mill if
they wanted.

Only 30 per cent of the ARC's $85-million budget is funded by the
government, and it relies heavily on private sector investment in the
research. The work being done at the ARC is designed to be applied to
existing processes in pulp mills rather than require new ones to be built.

So far the ARC hasn't got the really big contracts for fibre research from
the pulp and paper industry, but it's working on it.

"If I had a dollar for everyone who came up to me and said they were
interested, I would be a rich man. People are interested in keeping their
options open, but we can't provide the research for free."

The agri-fibre section is a small part of the work of the ARC at its
sprawling campus in the research park nearSouth Edmonton Common. About 350
employees work there, and another 300 in the ARC's other facilities in
Devon, Vegreville and Calgary. There are a lot of keen academic minds out
there, balanced by researchers with ample experience in industry.

The ARC was founded 80 years ago by Karl Clark, considered the father of
oilsands extraction and after whom the road is named.

The council brings in the bulk of its revenue through contract research, as
well as royalties and licensing fees from commercialization of technology.

It soon branched out into other areas such as industrial processes and
pharmaceuticals. It even had research input into the city composting plant
at Clover Bar.

After the government under former premier Don Getty opened up the
floodgates for major expansion of the pulp industry in the late '80s, the
council moved into forestry research in a big way.

The forestry research has varied from work on sensors for pulp mills to the
use of pulp mill sludge on agricultural land.

And if the ARC's sales job is successful, the product of some of that land
could go back into forestry products.

Newshawk: Joe Adams
Pubdate: Thu, 20 Dec 2001
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2001 The Edmonton Journal
Author: Mike Sadava
Bookmark: (Hemp - Outside U.S.)