Sustainable Stand, No Longer a Tall Order

Sustainable Stand, No Longer a Tall Order

Department of Wood Science | Faculty of Forestry
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Lignin is the complex biopolymer ‘tendon and bone’ that lets plants, grasses and other ‘woody’ flora stand tall.

But for pulp, paper and biofuel industries, lignin is a problem; the fibrous, water-insoluble waste impediment must be removed with costly chemicals and mechanical forces.

Lignin makes up about 20 to 25 percent of a tree. One ‘solution’ is to genetically reduce the percentages in the tree species best suited for pulping, but there’s the tradeoff: stunted growth and susceptibility to pathogens, pests and weather.

Researchers have developed a better way: soluble ester bonds fitted into the lignin molecule that don’t affect the tree’s growth or strength, but make for easier rendering and processing. Fragmented, the lignin byproduct is easier to recover for use in adhesives, insolation, carbon fibres and paint additives.

This technique could extend to other plants such as grasses and ‘commercially valueless ‘weed’ trees like poplar, creating new sources of bio-fuels and tapping into what Shawn Mansfield, UBC professor of Wood Science, calls the “enormous potential” of managed harvests versus unsustainable oil fields:

“We’re a petroleum reliant society. We rely on the same resource for everything from smartphones to gasoline. We need to diversify and take the pressure off of fossil fuels.”

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“We're a petroleum reliant society. We rely on the same resource for everything from smartphones to gasoline. We need to diversify and take the pressure off of fossil fuels.” - Shawn Mansfield

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Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel. Photo Credit: Martin Dee

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