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Domtar’s Research in Biomaterials Science Leads to New Opportunities

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As plastics continue to crowd landfills and pollute waters, global demand for renewable biomaterials is increasing. Through innovative biomaterials science, Domtar, Montreal, Que., Canada, is leading the shift away from fossil fuels to a bio-based economy using the most renewable fossil-fuel alternative on the planet—trees. 

With existing and emerging technology, almost any petroleum-based product can be replaced with a bio-based alternative, sometimes with better performance and at less cost. By developing new and innovative ways to use trees, Domtar’s experts in biomaterials science are writing the next chapter of the company’s growth and creating renewed demand for healthy, viable forests.

As Domtar President and CEO John D. Williams said at the Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga., USA, earlier this year, "Wood fiber is the age-old wonder material that is seemingly new again. Its inherent attributes—it’s renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral, and cost-competitive—are driving exciting new developments."

Biomaterials Science Points to Five Product Categories

Domtar has been an expert in refining biomass for more than 100 years and has a rich history in sustainability and innovation. Thanks to its research in biomaterials science, the company is turning this expertise toward new possibilities in five target areas: lignin, extractives, cellulosic sugars, thermochemical fuels, and advanced fibers.

Domtar’s innovative use of biomass and biomaterials science is securing its growth, ensuring the viability of its natural resources, and defining sustainability for generations to come.

Domtar’s biomaterials science colleagues are researching the economic, environmental, and regulatory factors related to opportunities in biomaterials. Currently, it has identified more than 100 opportunities to supplement and enhance the company’s current pulp and paper product portfolio with biomaterials. Each of these opportunities also increases the economic value of trees, which in turn creates incentives for landowners to keep millions of acres as forest land and offers benefit to rural communities and the environmental health of the world.

The company’s focus on biomaterials science is just another example of its approach to sustainability—working smart for the long term. To learn more about sustainability at Domtar, read the company’s 2017 Sustainability Report. Also watch Domtar’s animated video about biomaterials science.

Everything About Biomaterials is Looking Up

Before there was a word, "biomaterials," there were biomaterials. Plants and trees play a key role in the balance of the earth’s atmosphere by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

The earth’s atmosphere was once mostly composed of carbon dioxide, also known as CO2. Then plant life developed and used the sun’s energy, the atmosphere’s CO2 and water to produce carbohydrates to feed itself.

One of the byproducts of this photosynthesis was oxygen. This process produced the atmosphere, which ultimately enabled us to flourish as human beings.

Over millions of years, deposits of dead plants and animals accumulated and were eventually buried. Pressure and temperature converted the carbon molecules in the biomass into what we now call fossil fuels—coal, oil, tar sands, and natural gas. The CO2 that was once in our atmosphere was thus effectively trapped, or sequestered underground.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have tapped this concentrated fuel source to power our rapid progress. The problem is that when we burn fossil fuels, we are putting that sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere, and this has been going on for the past 200 years.

In addition, millions of tons of petroleum-based products, like plastics, are made every year from these same fossil fuels, and these products are not biodegradable. Instead, they accumulate in our landfills, our rivers and, ultimately, in our oceans and beaches.

Dependence on fossil fuels is politically precarious in the short term and unsustainable in the long term, as they are nonrenewable. It’s a finite resource.

Luckily, along with renewable energy such as sunlight, wind, hydro, and geothermal, there is a new alternative to fossil fuels, and it is responsible, renewable, above ground — and it’s growing right in front of us: trees, also known as biomass.

Domtar can do in a few days what Mother Nature does in millions of years, meaning it can essentially convert biomass into fossil fuels like oil. As the world quickly moves towards a bio-based economy, away from fossil fuel, Domtar is in a position to lead the way, allowing its dependence on fossil fuels to be replaced with a supply of sustainable, plant-derived resources for fuels, chemicals, materials, food, and feed.

And guess what the best part is. The company has been developing and building the technology to break down biomass and improving the supply chain for the feedstock for more than 170 years. It is an expert at it.

The cornerstone of this economy is the forest-based biorefinery, where renewable resources are converted to multiple products without overexploiting the resource.

Every one of Domtar’s pulp mills is a biorefinery, and each one has the potential to generate a multitude of sustainable products. The company manages its wood supply in a responsible and transparent manner, and it is now developing a host of new bio-based products made from them.

The proteins, oils, sugars, and lignin that form the building blocks of trees are being separated and used to make things such as fuels, plastics, pulp, paper, diapers, perfumes, toothpaste, and many other things. Today, Domtar can essentially replace any petroleum-based product with a bio-based alternative — and, in some cases, with better performance and at a lower cost.

And the best part is that as Domtar creates more value for the trees, more farmers will want to grow trees, which helps the environment in so many ways. And none of the products the company creates require the use of carbon that’s been stored underground for eons.

As the world continues to shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy to a low-carbon, bio-based economy, some pretty amazing things are starting to happen. Domtar is reducing, or will eventually eliminate, plastic contamination from landfills and oceans because its products are biodegradable. The company helps transition wealth to the forested, more rural communities, giving it the ability to be energy independent while ensuring value and continued growth of the trees and forests.

The pulp and paper industry has an existing supply chain and logistics, and the technology to fractionate its feedstock—trees, the largest form of harvestable and renewable biomass on the planet.

Domtar will continue to help our planet, as wood is carbon-neutral, meaning the atmosphere is kept in balance. So the next time someone asks you if we have a sustainable future, point to a tree and tell them "things are looking up."

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