In search of a replacement for petroleum-based products and materials, the world is turning its attention to biomaterials. We spoke with Mark DeAndrea, vice president and business unit leader for Domtar’s BioMaterials Innovation team, about what the future holds for biomaterials.
Why is the BioMaterials Innovation team important to Domtar?
The world is transitioning away from one that depends on petroleum-based products toward one that will favor bio-based products. To do so, we need access to harvestable, sustainable, renewable biomass — the largest source of which is trees. According to the USDA Forest Products Laboratory, there are more than 22 billion metric tons of standing forest in the United States alone, growing at 2 percent annually. Approximately 1 percent, or 236 million metric tons, of that supply is harvested each year.
Think about it. Petroleum is derived from plant and animal matter that has been underground, under extreme heat and pressure, for millennia, slowly becoming fossil fuel. At Domtar, we can now achieve the same result in less than a day at a pulp mill, where we break down wood into cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and extractives — materials that are renewable and managed sustainably, without releasing sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere.
Our BioMaterials Innovation team is looking for ways to leverage our asset base, including but not limited to our mills and our biomass supply chain. We started three years ago by formalizing a process to map, screen and quantify opportunities. We’ve been looking at macro trends — such as the move to ban plastic or increase the use of biodegradable, carbon-neutral, renewable fuel sources and materials — to identify pain points within existing industries and determine where we can provide a solution and, more importantly, have a competitive advantage.
For example, the adhesives industry is moving away from products containing formaldehyde. Can we use our lignin to produce formaldehyde-free resins? After some initial evaluation work, we concluded the answer was yes. The evaluation process also includes understanding the patent landscape, the value proposition, the market risks, etc. At the end of the day, our product also needs to be on par with existing petroleum-based products.
Where are the opportunities for Domtar in biomaterials, today and in the future?
We have five BioMaterials Innovation platforms: extractives, lignin, cellulosic sugars, advanced fibers and thermochemical fuels.
Extractives is our most mature platform. If you have ever touched a tree and found yourself with sticky sap or oils on your hands, those are the extractives. Our pulping process cooks those extractives out of the wood. We collect them and sell them in bulk as raw materials, or feedstock, to specialty refiners. They, in turn, sell them to companies who put them into products we use every day.
For example, the alpha-Pinenes found in our turpentine are used in insect repellents, soaps, toothpaste, makeup, fragrances, food flavorings, lubricants, resins, inks and other common household goods. We are exploring ways to move downstream into some of those markets with our partners as well.
Lignin is our second-most mature biomaterials business. I believe lignin is the most compelling platform because of its abundance and its natural functional properties. It is a natural polymer, adhesive, antimicrobial, antioxidant and fire retardant, just to name a few benefits. More importantly, lignin is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, exceeded only by cellulose. Lignin comprises 17–30 percent of wood, meaning our industry harvests and burns more than 70 million tons of lignin every year, primarily as a fuel source for mills.
Some near-term lignin opportunities include carbon foam, carbon black, graphene, animal feed, thermoplastics, antibiotic replacements, agriculture films and adhesives. We’re also exploring opportunities to broker and/or modify lignin.
We will never be the world’s only or largest lignin producer, as our total possible lignin output is limited to a few million tons per year. However, our technology and know-how have positioned us as a leader in lignin modification. Our plan is to own specific applications and either license our technology or be the lignin modifiers of choice for our customers.
Cellulosic sugars are another exciting area for the BioMaterials Innovation team. Cellulose, which we use to make paper, is made of sugar. Commercially available yeast can convert cellulose to fuels such as ethanol. We also are looking at ways to develop omega-3 oils and numerous bio-based chemicals from cellulose.
Our advanced fibers business is progressing well, as we have developed our own technology to modify wood cellulose fibers to enhance strength, formation, density and barrier properties. This is exciting, especially when we look at combining our advanced fiber (Stealth Fiber Technology) with our lignin and cellulosic sugar platforms. It give us options and a built-in competitive advantage.
Finally, the BioMaterials Innovation team is excited about the opportunities for bio-based thermochemical fuels. We are developing processes that use high temperature, steam and pressure to turn numerous pulp mill feedstocks into bio-oils, biofuels and biochemicals.
To summarize, our overall strategy is to have a diverse portfolio by making a lot of small bets. The bets are big enough to make a difference, but they don’t require betting the farm.
In light of the Chinese tariffs on U.S. recyclables and the difficulties communities face with single-stream recycling, the pressure is on to find sustainable alternatives, especially to plastic. What is the opportunity for Domtar?
So much of what people send to their local recycling center was sold to China, but China is no longer buying it. What will society do with it? We can’t landfill it all, nor can we burn it, so plastic producers are looking for bio-based alternatives to eliminate the issue.
As such, we’re seeing a shift from a traditional market push to a market pull. That is, our partners are looking to us for solutions and to help them find new products to replace some of the plastics and other petroleum-based materials they currently use. They need a partner with know-how and a supply chain on a large industrial scale.
The timing couldn’t be better; I mean, could you have imagined we would ever see a day when plastic straws were being banned? Lignin is an ideal polymer to replace plastic, and someday we might see all plastics banned. When you hear from automotive companies, plastic companies and chemical companies that they want to supplement or replace their petroleum feedstocks, you quickly realize this might just be the tip of the iceberg.
What surprises people the most about biomaterials innovation at Domtar?
I think they’re surprised at how quickly the markets are shifting. You can’t go to a paper industry conference without several pulp-and-paper CEOs talking about their new biomaterials focus. We are starting to see real change. Some early indicators include patent filings. For example, from 1990 to the early 2000s, there were, on average, fewer than 100 patents per year filed in the lignin space. Since 2014, that number has grown to more than 1,000 patents per year. Governments in northern Europe and Canada are adding fuel to that fire with tax breaks and incentives, such as R&D grants.
I am personally surprised how quickly biomaterials is gaining traction in our industry. When I joined Domtar in 2016, I anticipated a BioMaterials Innovation portfolio with several significant opportunities, a couple of which would gain traction. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The market pull, combined with our development efforts, partner companies, governments and universities, has enabled our portfolio to grow to more than 20 significant opportunities, with several being commercialized as we speak.
What excites you the most about biomaterials innovation?
The objective for our BioMaterials Innovation team was to develop new revenue streams at our mills to make up the decline in paper demand. However, as ambitious as that was, I think we as an industry were thinking too small. I love that the pulp and paper industry is potentially a solution for one of the largest problems our civilization has ever faced. There are seemingly endless possibilities, not just economically, but also in terms of how we can positively impact the environment.
It’s not rocket science. If you want to grow a business, you need strong leadership, great people, cutting-edge technology, strong market demand, access to raw materials and capital. What’s exciting to me is Domtar has ALL of that. In addition, we are in a situation where we can truly make a difference.
That’s a legacy I’m proud to be part of, and I suspect that is why so many of us wanted to join the Domtar team.