Mainebiz: New act for forest products: Manufacturers find new uses for Maine’s vast forest resource

Originally published on Mainebiz

In the Penobscot County town of Enfield, construction of a facility is underway that will “carbonize” woodchips and sawdust residuals from a neighboring sawmill through a process called pyrolysis.

The result is “biochar” — a granular charcoal-like material that is used in high-value applications such as PFAS remediation, stormwater management and in agriculture for soil improvement and in animal bedding while permanently removing C02 from the atmosphere.

Frederick Horton and his brother Tom founded Standard Biocarbon Corp., a clean-tech startup headquartered in Portland, to produce high quality biochar using state-of-the art technology from Germany.

“Biochar has been around for millennia,” says Frederick Horton. “Its use cases in agriculture are well established.”

Other applications include environmental remediation and stormwater management, along with emerging uses as an additive to cement and pavement.

Their manufacturing facility, at the Pleasant River Sawmill in Enfield, will use residuals that have experienced declining demand due to closures of biomass power plants and paper mills.

A ‘closed loop’

The relationship between the two companies works like this: Pleasant River Mill offers a reliable on-site supply of clean, woodchips for feedstock and invaluable support and assistance from Chris and Jason Brochu, co-presidents of Pleasant River Lumber, and their team. In turn, Standard Biocarbon will send excess thermal energy back to the mill for its drying kiln system.

“It’s an elegant closed loop,” says Horton.

The Enfield mill is the newest of Pleasant River’s five mills across Maine and continues to expand. For now, chip production from spruce and fir is about 100,000 tons annually, but will eventually reach 250,000 tons, says Mike LeBrun, general manager.

Pleasant River ships 95% of its chips to a paper mill in Old Town. Users of its sawdust include farmers for animal bedding and heating pellet makers. Bark goes to makers of gardening mulch.

“Everything is used,” says LeBrun.

Once Standard Biocarbon starts operations, expected later this year, the goal is to produce about 160 tons (950 cubic yards) monthly.

“From what I’ve heard, Standard Biocarbon is at the front of a very large wave of diverse uses of wood products,” said LeBrun. “It used to be lumber and paper and not much else. Now there’s a whole bunch of other uses coming online.”

‘Carbon construction units’

That large wave of diverse uses is certainly rolling along, as stakeholders of all types examine the potential of new wood products through the sustainable use of Maine’s vast forest resource.

The Maine Office of Business Development, led by longtime forest products advocate Charlotte Mace, has identified forest products as one of several Maine industry clusters having the highest potential for growth.

Forest products have driven Maine’s economy for centuries, with lumber and paper mills long providing jobs to loggers, truckers and mill workers. Mills continue to be a backbone for Maine’s rural economy, but markets for wood products are changing with a decline in the pulpwood and paper industry.

New markets could include biochar, mass timber, packaging and biobased manufacturing, made from hardwood, sawmill byproducts and lower-quality logs.

A forest-products industry coalition launched in 2018, the Forest Opportunity Roadmap/Maine, is looking to add 40% growth to the $8.5 billion industry by 2025. It has been moving forward to commercialize new uses of wood, developing a marketing plan to bring more capital investments to Maine; building a communications strategy to promote career opportunities in the forest industry; and updating Maine’s sustainable wood supply projections.

“Our goal is to grow and diversify Maine’s forest economy, to build resilience in the industry and to support rural communities where manufacturing and natural resource-based jobs are located,” says Brianna Bowman, program director for FOR/Maine.

FOR/Maine’s work includes “global matchmaking” for companies interested in Maine’s resource, Bowman says.

“We’ve tuned in to a massive global demand,” Bowman says.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, says climate change awareness has helped highlight the advantages of forest products.

“It was natural to think about how wood could be used to replace plastic,” Strauch says. “I think that timing was good for Maine.”

He adds, “I joke with my sawmillers: ‘You can’t refer to your lumber as 2-by-4s anymore; they’re ‘linear carbon construction units.’”

Printed homes, engineered siding

Wood-derived products are a focus of research at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono.

The center recently unveiled a 3D printed prototype “BioHome3D” with flooring, walls and roof made of wood fibers and bio-resins. The customizable house is recyclable and 100% wood insulated. Construction waste was nearly eliminated due to the precision of the printing process.

“The goal is to print homes like this every 48 hours,” the center’s executive director, Habib Dagher, said at a recent presentation.

The center is home to the world’s largest polymer 3D printer, which can extrude pellets made from wood residuals combined with bio-resin, as well as other materials. The center previously printed a 25-foot boat and a 12-foot-long shelter.

The pilot project could lead to a first-in-the-nation bio-based 3D-printed affordable neighborhood in Greater Bangor, in collaboration with the nonprofit Penquis and MaineHousing.

In northern Maine, a Houlton siding company owned by Nashville, Tenn.-based Louisiana-Pacific Corp. (NYSE: LPX), last fall completed a $150 million conversion to expand production of SmartSide — an advanced engineered wood siding — to 220 million square feet.

Another $400 million investment is planned to create a second SmartSide line, doubling the site’s capacity, adding scores of jobs and increasing consumption of locally sourced trembling aspen.

Sappi North America said it would invest $418 million in a paper machine rebuild at its Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, increasing capacity to produce solid bleached sulfate board products, a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging within health, beauty and food services industries, among others. Upgrades will be completed by early 2025.

Sappi, a South African company with a U.S. headquarters in Boston and a sales office in Westbrook, has said demand for packaging and specialty papers in North America is particularly robust.

Molded fiber

Tanbark Molded Fiber Products in Portland will manufacture Type 3 molded fiber using pulp made from locally sourced, sustainable harvested trees.

“We started Tanbark to help replace single-use plastic,” says Melissa LaCasse, CEO and co-founder.

Tanbark’s Saco facility expects to launch production this month, hire 35-plus employees in the next 12 to 16 months and grow to a 4-ton per day wood pulp facility. It’s creating in-house R&D and prototyping capabilities, and working with partners to develop new applications and products using virgin pulp from Maine trees.

The molded fiber “is literally pulp plus water,” sometimes adding non-harmful chemicals for performance. Molding starts with fiber slurry, followed by thermoforming with heat and pressure to form end materials to replace rigid single use plastic.

Beyond the product, LaCasse adds, “We’re excited to share how Tanbark is innovating a Maine heritage industry to solve a modern problem. After all, Maine is America’s wood basket, which translates to a plentiful, renewable, and domestically harvested source.”

Timber opportunities

Mass timber and cross-laminated timber are emerging as opportunities to reduce construction’s carbon footprint by replacing steel and concrete.

The Barry Mills Hall and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick use a mix of glue-laminated timber columns and beams and cross-laminated timber panels consisting of multiple layers of dimensional lumber stacked and bonded at 90-degree angles.

Construction projects using CLT include Wessex Woods, an Avesta Housing project in Portland. Westbrook’s Rock Row will see Maine’s first commercial office building that primarily uses CLT.

For now, Maine imports mass timber products from other states.

In Madison, TimberHP will soon launch the first U.S.-made high-performance wood fiber insulation. Co-founder and CEO Joshua Henry recently told Mainebiz that retailers and distributors have expressed strong interest.

Structural round timber

In Aroostook County, the town of Ashland is collaborating with WholeTrees Structures of Madison, Wis., and Maine forest company Seven Islands Land Co. on Original Mass Timber Maine, an initiative to build momentum with the East Coast architectural and building community regarding opportunities for structural round timber, says Dan LaMontagne, Seven Islands’ president and CEO.

SRT utilizes trees in their natural form for structural applications such as columns, beams and trusses.

The initiative came about because the parties “believed that East Coast building markets were primed for introduction to this carbon friendly building approach/material,” LaMontagne continues.

WholeTrees develops SRT markets in other geographies. With further funding, goals include ramping up an SRT production facility in Maine.

There’s a case for the role of SRT in sustaining Maine’s forest economy.

“Put simply,” says LaMontagne, “the viability and sustainable management of Maine’s forests is strongly correlated to having robust and diverse markets for wood products.”

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