Lessons learned from the mountain pine beetle epidemic

Stanford Blade’s name sounds better-suited to a superhero than an employee of the Government of Alberta. And for the people who work in Alberta’s forest products sector, Blade is a kind of superhero. As CEO of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions Corporation, an agglomeration of government-funded research programs created on January 1, 2010, he is leading an effort to save the industry from the scourge of the mountain pine beetle.

Blade is looking for ways to help the industry diversify, both in terms of the products it produces and the strategies it uses to sell them. “We think about everything from sustainable production to ecosystem services and what the bio-economy turns into, now and in the next five to 10 years,” he says. Already, the industry has made considerable progress in adapting to its challenges. “If we would have said five years ago that Alberta-Pacific [a lumber company that once produced only two-by-fours] would have a green methanol production facility as part of its operation at Boyle, that just wouldn’t have been in the cards,” Blade says. “But people keep thinking more and more about how they can use that biomass in interesting and profitable ways.”

One of the best at that is Whitecourt’s Alberta Newsprint Company. In 2008, it was part of a $28-million research project that tested sensor technology and equipment modifications aimed at making beetle-kill wood usable in newsprint production. Other innovative applications of beetle-kill pine include burning it in order to produce energy and refining it to produce biochemicals and biofuels.