By Fergal Leamy, CEO, Coillte.
“The new bio-economy requires a shift in our thinking away from traditional sectorial conceptions and definitions and a move towards new collaborations between resource production and processing and conversion.”
Coillte is a commercial company managing over 440,000 hectares across Ireland and operating a forestry business, a land solutions business and two manufacturing plants producing timber panels for the construction sector. As producers of a renewable biological resource and value added bio-based products. Coillte is already well established in the traditional forest bio-economy. However we see this as just the beginning, and as part our strategy to 2030, we are actively exploring new and innovative bio-based products as a new bio-economy emerges in response to the pressing need for de-carbonisation of production and energy systems.
Forests serve multiple and interrelated social, economic and environmental functions. Besides providing jobs, income and raw materials to traditional timber industry, forests continuously sequester carbon as they grow and accumulate biomass. Products made from forest biomass store carbon and can provide a substitute for high embedded carbon products such as plastic, concrete and steel.
Forests purify water supplies and regulate water flow, mitigating flood risk. Forestry is generally a low intervention land use and contributes to soil stability and fertility. Finally the life cycle of forests is long and, between planting and final harvesting, forests provide an important habitat for wildlife and a place to recreate and experience nature.
In providing a sustainable feedstock for the new bio-economy, the multiple uses of forests must be considered and carefully balanced and this is a core competence of Coillte. All our forests are sustainably managed and all harvested biomass is independently certified to FSC™ and PEFC™ standards. The structural characteristics of forest biomass are unique and extraordinary and recent innovations in engineered timber are taking the world’s oldest construction material and radically expanding its range of use. Pioneered in Austria in the 1990s, cross-laminated timber technology has now matured and moved from niche to a mainstream alternative to structural steel or reinforced concrete.
The Tall Wood Residence at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is an 18 storey (53m) wood structure built on a concrete podium. Completed in 2017 and now home to 400 university students, the building was designed by Canadian architects Action Ostry with the Austrian practice Architekten Hermann Kaufmann acting as tall wood advisors. Closer to home at 14 storey (49m) building has been completed in Bergen, Norway and a cluster of 10 storey (33m) buildings have been built in London. These low-carbon buildings can be built fast and are well suited to constrained city centre sites.
Bio-based products are not limited to bio-based version of existing products. Novel products which exploit the structural quality of forest biomass, but have entirely new and innovative functionalities, are also being developed. Swedish clothing company Allvar manufactures premium products from textiles produced from forest material. The Swedish forest origin is a key marketing feature of Allvar’s products. New high-tech, low-impact packaging materials derived from forest biomass are now in use and a wide range of plastic substitutes are under development.
At a non-structural level, biorefinery technology provides an opportunity to create new value-added products from forest biomass and in particular from forest residues. Biorefineries can potentially produce high value products such as liquid bio-fuels, bio-resins and a variety of other bio-based materials and could provide feedstocks for further processing in the biotechnology sector. The future development of integrated and diversified biorefineries holds the potential to create synergies and economies of scale between agriculture, forestry and fisheries and would have particular advantage for an island nation with a strong agricultural base such as Ireland.
The bio-economy will need creative new business models for partnering the production of renewable natural resources with engineering and conversion technologies. Ireland has a relatively low population density, fertile soils, abundant freshwater resources and a mild year-round climate, creating excellent conditions for biomass growth generally and arguably some of the best conditions in the world for growing trees.
Coupling this with Ireland’s strengths in life sciences and data technologies creates the potential for a world leading bio-economy.
The age structure of Irish forests is such that the total output is set to double in the next ten years. This coupled with developments in engineering and conversion technologies and a strong policy drive to reduce use of fossil derived materials and fuels creates a great opportunity for a thriving Irish bio-economy. The new bio-economy requires a shift in our thinking away from traditional sectorial conceptions and definitions and a move towards new collaborations between resource production and processing and conversion. Success has the prize of a range of innovative, resource efficient, dynamic and competitive industries responding to the key challenges of our times.
For information contact Ciarán Fallon, Head of External Relations: Ciaran.Fallon@coillte.ie
This interview first appeared in Issue #10 of the Bio-Based World Quarterly, which had a special focus on the Irish bio-economy, read the whole issue here.
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