The variety of products and technologies that can be derived from trees is mindboggling. New Zealand Crown Research Institute Scion is investigating exciting ways to obtain maximum value from this sustainable resource.
On the surface, forestry seems like a fairly straightforward industry. It makes an important contribution to our economy as our third-largest export earner, and generates revenues equivalent to over 3% of GDP.
But there’s more to trees than raw logs and timber pulp. New Zealand’s forestry activities are producing some novel, interesting and sustainable ways to extract value from trees.
At the forefront of innovations from this sector is Scion (formerly the Forest Research Institute). This world-leading forestry organisation is one of seven New Zealand Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), offering R&D services across the entire forestry value-chain. Scion specialises in research, science and developing technologies for the forestry, wood products and biomaterials sectors. It has become an internationally recognised leader in plantation forestry science.
Wealth from wood
CEO Warren Parker says that Scion’s vision is ‘prosperity from trees’.
'Trees are remarkable organisms – they produce a wide range of useful structural and chemical compounds,' he says. 'They can grow on a variety of different terrain types, and at huge scale. They’re renewable, offer benefits such as erosion control and carbon sequestration, and need not compete with food production.'
Innovation at Scion stretches back to the 1920s, and in recent years, the organisation has clocked up some impressive firsts. Among them: a cloning programme for cypresses, fire-behaviour prediction software, commercialisation of a hauler vision system to improve forestry safety and cut logharvesting costs, bio-plastics made from wood feedstocks, plastics reinforced and lightweighted with natural fibres, and a robotic scanner called DiscBot that measures wood density and other wood properties.
'We have a technology pipeline of original work that fits our research focus around tree breeding, propagating, growing, harvesting plantation forests, wood and fibre products, and the production and use of wood biorefinery products,' says Parker.
As well as conducting research for the government, Scion also works to create commercialisable science through technology-development partnerships. A recent example is a bioadhesive that combines chemicals from forestry with agricultural waste. The patented glue, trade marked as Ligate, is a green alternative to the conventional petrochemical adhesives used to make composite wood panels. It produces zero emissions and even captures natural formaldehyde emitted from the wood (when used in engineered wood panels). The result of seven years of R&D, Scion’s bioadhesive won the Biotechnology of the Year Award at this year’s NZBIO Excellence Awards.
Protecting great ideas
Obviously, intellectual property is a crucial component of Scion’s assets. About 15 years ago, the organisation turned to IP experts AJ Park for assistance and advice in this area. AJ Park partner and biochemist Anton Gibson works closely with Gregor MacDonald, inhouse counsel at Scion, to help safeguard the organisation’s innovations.
'We provide tactical IP support to protect the outcomes of the scientific work Scion carries out,' explains Gibson. 'Our role is to help Scion achieve its commercial goals; primarily by protecting its technology through patents.'
While Scion has its own in-house IP specialists, MacDonald says AJ Park’s complementary services and expertise add significant value, particularly around the drafting, prosecution and maintenance of Scion’s growing patent portfolio.
'Scion is involved in a broad range of technical and scientific fields. We produce many things, from trees to new materials to land-use and decision-making tools. Each requires quite different protection and implementation pathways.'
AJ Park provides diverse technical expertise, and quality patent-drafting over a range of subject matters. They also bring coalface, up-to-date knowledge of patent practices and an invaluable second pair of eyes. Anton helps optimise the quality and scope of our IP rights, and assists our decision-making, and AJ Park’s databases provide an additional layer of security around maintaining our IP rights.- Gregor MacDonald, Scion
Trees of the future
With disruption impacting virtually every industry on the planet, what might the future hold for forestry? MacDonald says there are multiple areas with the potential for disruption or at least significant change.
'Big data, sensors, imaging tools, and image analysis are likely to change forest inventory, management and planning,' he predicts. 'In vertically integrated industries, the supply of tree-derived compounds into new supply chains could also change forest ownership arrangements. Distributed manufacturing using 3D-printing technology incorporating tree-sourced biomaterials could also significantly change prospects for regional development and would utilise New Zealand’s strengths in design and ICT.'
He also believes the widening of applications for forestry products might lead to a greater diversification of plantation species, cultivars and growing cycles.
'Perhaps, most significantly, we will see biotechnology provide trees with traits tailored to their applications and the use of robotics in currently labour-intensive propagation.'
Clearly, there’s a lot more to forestry than you might imagine.