Success Story: West Fraser Mills Ltd.

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Quantified Feasibility

“The Bio-Industrial Opportunities Section has the expertise, complemented by an impressive inventory of pilot plant scale equipment, to cater to researchers and entrepreneurs wanting to take the next step. It makes launching technology from benchtop to full scale production not only possible but probable.”
—Kyle Wells, Ph.D
Bioproducts and Energy
Hinton Pulp
A Division of West Fraser Mills Ltd.

One of the backbones of good business practice is the utilization of a feasibility study and a must when determining the economic viability of a proposed idea. West Fraser Mills, an integrated North American wood products company, found itself on the precipice of a line of diversification with its black liquor soap — a biodiesel manufacturing plant. Black liquor soap is the waste product created during the kraft process of digesting pulpwood into pulp. West Fraser, in concert with Bluekey Energy and A.H. Lundberg Engineering, took patented technology to Alberta Innovates, Fuels and Lubricants Group to characterize the use of black liquor soap’s three major components: free fatty acids, sterols, and resin acids.

The Government of Alberta, Department of Energy, funded a portion of the research through The Biorefining Commercialization and Market Development Program Grant. These funds needed to be matched by West Fraser in order to be eligible for the grant. Alberta Innovates then defined the necessary steps to the separation process, however with no capabilities for upscaling, a cross-ministry collaboration was necessary. Enter the Bio-Industrial Opportunities Section (BIO Section) of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. It was better equipped to provide the objective analysis required.

Known for its surplus of processing equipment, especially milling, drying and extruding, the BIO Section was enlisted to solve the issues of upscaling and determine a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the issues encountered could be attributed to the shear scale increase, going from working with 1 to 2 litres of black liquor soap to 100 to 200 litre batches. The BIO Section team had to conquer challenges determining appropriate processing parameters involving reactors, thermodynamics and purification by distillation.

There were many benefits realized while working with the BIO Section. One of the things West Fraser appreciated was the transparent approach to information sharing. Nothing was hidden from the client throughout the process. There was even an “open door” policy of sorts, whereby scientists and engineers from West Fraser’s group were able to work on site alongside the BIO Section team. Another benefit, the BIO Section’s fee-for-service arrangement was both competitive and solution-based. The service West Fraser’s group received included the arrangement of specific off-site testing when dealing with the bio diesel making the grade, a preliminary engineering design of the proposed plant, and proposals for the commercialization of sterols and resin acids. With this information in hand, West Fraser’s technical and organizational requirements of the feasibility study were satisfied; the investment required versus the value to be gained. The return on investment was determined and West Fraser was able to make an informed decision concerning the pursuit of this potential new venture.

The BIO Section proved to be a great one-stop-shop for testing ideas. With a creative tact for trouble-shooting and an approachable manner, the scientists and engineers continue their pursuit of sophisticated viable solutions.

Alberta Agriculture & Forestry
Bio-Industrial Opportunities Section
Agri-Food Discovery Place
Building F-83, 6020 – 118 Street
Edmonton Alberta T6G 2E1
Phone: (780) 644-8118

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Victor Cheng.
This information published to the web on February 3, 2015.
Last Reviewed/Revised on January 31, 2018.