Thunder Bay, Ont. is home to the Resolute Forest Products laboratory and demonstration plant, where researchers can explore possible uses of lignin — along with cellulose and hemicellulose, the key biopolymers that make up wood — which is typically burned for want of any other use.
According to Lakehead University chemical engineering professor Pedram Fatehi, this lignin could find its way into commercial products. With easy local access to substantial amounts for experimental purposes, he has been eager to address this prospect.

Thanks to a $132,000 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) this past January, along with a matching amount from the Ontario Research Fund (ORF), Fatehi and colleagues Baoqiang Liao and Mat Leitch will be able to do just that. This support enables them to purchase equipment for gel permeation chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography, dynamic light scattering and photometric dispersion analysis. “We are trying to produce value-added chemicals from wasted materials of pulping processes, water-soluble lignin and biogas,” says Fatehi. “These chemicals have many applications in the mining, oil/sand waste water and paint industries. Currently, they are oil-based, toxic and expensive. If we could make them from the waste, it would be better for the environment and the process would be more efficient.”

Fatehi adds that the potential market for such products is estimated at about $2 billion, covering the treatment requirements of mining and other major sectors such as oil sands production and municipal wastewater. The CFI/ORF grant provides resources for the researchers to match processing standards set by those industries. “Without this equipment, there would be no research,” says Fatehi. “It will generally help the pulp and mining industries to make green integrated processes.”