Unlocking material solutions from nature
November 23, 2022
Are the solutions we need to address critical issues such as climate change and sustainability already out there in nature, with their potential waiting to be unlocked? This is the question that drives the University of British Columbia’s BioProducts Institute (BPI), a research centre dedicated to unlocking the full potential of nature-based materials, including trees and other plants, as well as agricultural residuals and waste biomass.
With non-renewable resources like petroleum and its products contributing to climate change and the creation of toxic microplastics and landfill waste, the researchers at BPI are using biological materials – most notably wood, but also other plant fibres and marine matter such as sea shells – in unexpected ways. Researchers at BPI are developing everything from fine fibres for textiles and packing materials made with manipulated wood to more complex materials such as lightweight plastic alternatives, wooden bioproducts that act like glass, energy harvesting and storage devices – all from natural biological sources. While most of these products are still in the research and development phase, the institute and its partners are focused on capitalizing on the opportunity for these products to receive widespread use.
“We’re trying to use bio-based polymers to build new structures designed to solve material needs,” says Orlando Rojas, BPI’s scientific director. “There are examples that are very striking. We’re developing new processes to create materials from wood. In doing so, recyclability, end-of life and environmental impact are important considerations. You end up with bioproducts – material that is produced from nature – that can compete with engineered and advanced materials.”
Using wood or other natural renewable materials can have many beneficial effects, particularly when it comes to climate change mitigation and sustainability. The wood used in these applications can include recycled and repurposed wood from building projects and discarded items, fallen or dead trees, and other matter obtained via sustainably managed forests. By replacing plastics or materials derived from crops that demand high volumes of water and cause soil erosion or contamination with sustainably harvested wood and residues, manufacturers can decrease waste, water use and carbon-dioxide emissions while making lighter-weight products that are also easier and cleaner to transport.
“Using wood and plant materials in unexpected ways is an essential pathway to displacing the materials, chemicals and fuels from non-renewable resources that we currently rely on,” says Heather Trajano, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the lead for biorefinery systems at BPI. “If we are thoughtful and strategic in how we implement these wood-based technologies, we will reduce our environmental impact. Creating new high-value products from wood and plant material could re-invigorate and accelerate Canada’s forestry and agricultural industries.”
Beyond the creation of these innovative materials, part of what sets BPI apart from other research institutes in its field is its multi-disciplinary approach. With more than 50 professors and their research teams affiliated with BPI, the institute sees chemists, engineers, forestry experts, biologists and academics from social science and humanities disciplines working together. Several partnerships with industry partners and communities also support the research and development while validating the potential of bioproducts. The institute is not only concerned with the science of building these materials but also with the commercial implications, moving them to market, and how their uptake in society could generate social, economic and cultural benefits.
Dr. Rojas believes that BPI’s work is not only innovative – it is essential. As Canada and the rest of the world face inevitable transitions that come with climate change mitigation, sustainably produced biological materials come with many environmental benefits and may ultimately become the only alternative for many industries.
“We talk about climate change, we talk about environmental impacts, and what we’re creating is the only option for replacing plastics and petroleum-based materials,” Dr. Rojas says. “The only real opportunity that we have, considering the availability of plants around us, is to use them in a responsible and intelligent manner.”