Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

At the leading edge of bio-fibres

Local firm atop potentially vital production sector

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For several years now, the Composites Innovation Centre has been tinkering with using locally grown agricultural fibres to make composites as a cheaper, more sustainable material that might replace fibreglass.

It's an undeniably great idea -- using commodities such as hemp or flax, mashed up and mixed with resin, baked and then shaped into door panels for buses or fenders for agricultural equipment or interior trim for automobiles.

The CIC has been working with local industry developing all sorts of experimental products using bio-fibres and results have been good.

But the whole concept is still at the pre-commercial stage. There's no real industry and whatever supply chain currently exists is a little on the haphazard side.

But manufacturers are being pressured into developing products that don't rely on carbon fuels or that expend less energy to make.

For instance, every automobile made in Europe right now has to have 20 per cent renewable content. The trick is to find reliable products that are made from renewable raw materials.

Winnipeg's Composites Innovation Centre is at the forefront of this new global initiative -- effectively, the creation of a whole new industry.

The CIC is about to build the first-ever grading system for bio-fibres -- agricultural products that can be used to replace fibreglass in building lightweight, super-strong parts for all sorts of applications.

It has just received a $1.9-million infusion of capital from the federal government to set up the world's first bio-fibre grading centre.

The money from Western Economic Diversification will help the CIC buy equipment to establish the Fibre Characterization Industrial Technology Capability (FibreCITY) centre.

"This is going to take the black art out of bio-composites development," said Simon Potter, sector manager for product innovation at the CIC. "It has always been an empirical process where we try a bit of this and a bit of that and see if it works or not. That's the wrong thinking. We have to step back and understand the fundamentals of what we are working with, then we can design things rationally."

Ford or Hyundai or Motor Coach Industries or New Flyer might be motivated to use parts made from hemp bio-fibre, but they're organizations that have to be able to vouch for the safety and reliability of their products.

They have to be able to assure their customers of consistent performance where the parts have dependable quality and are the same, month after month, with a reliable source of supply.

"One of the major problems you are going to have with bio-materials is the inherent nature of the "bio" part," Potter said.

The properties of bio-fibre will change from variety to variety, species to species and year to year based on weather, how much rain those crops had, how much sunlight and all sorts of factors.

"In the midst of all those confounding factors we need to understand the quality of what we are getting to ensure consistency," said Potter. "That is what customers have been asking for."

With FibreCITY, the CIC is looking to establish those benchmarks that can be used around the world.

"This is a game-changer," said Sean McKay, the executive director of the CIC.

The CIC has helped local companies such as the Eastside Group build gazebo roofs using bio-fibres and Motor Coach and Buhler Versatile develop prototype parts for their equipment.

"But significant developments are still required for their comprehensive adoption," said McKay.

Over the years, the CIC has assembled a growing group of industry supporters in those efforts. Joe Hogue of SWM, whose Winkler processing plant is one of the largest flax processors in the world, is one of them.

Hogue believes the timing is right for broader acceptance.

"I believe when General Motors just about failed... most young people understood that what was good for GM was not necessarily good for America," Hogue said. "Everything was now on the table, everything could be reinvented. The way we used to do business was not the way we need to do business."

McKay and Potter are already imagining FibreCITY as the place that manufacturers from all over the world will have to come to test the standards of their bio-fibre products because there's nowhere else to establish the standards.

Maybe even the technology would be licensed and FibreCITY offshoots would be established in Bejing or Sydney.

Maybe it might even be spun off to form a for-profit entity.

There have been several efforts to establish an economic development niche that sets Manitoba apart. The CIC is gradually becoming the centre of something that will really take.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 B6

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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