A silver celebration

5 March 2014


The BioComposites Centre is celebrating 25 years in business. During that time it has offered wideranging consultancy and research services to the wood products industry, as well as organising the International Panel Products Symposium (IPPS). Mike Botting interviewed the Centre’s director, Rob Elias.

In 1986, a consultancy named Wood Tec was established as a business within Bangor University in North Wales, under the auspices of the School of Agriculture and Forest Sciences.

Its founders were Dr Harry Earl and Professor Bart Banks and it was one of the first businesses to carry out industrial research within the university.

In 1989, Wood Tec became the BioComposites Centre and came under the direction of Dr James Bolton.

"James took the business further," said current director of the BioComposites Centre, Dr Rob Elias. "He had an insight into what the industry was looking for. MDF was beginning to emerge on the market and James was able to attract some research funding from the Welsh Government and from industry - particularly Caberboard [now Norbord]."

Dr Bolton bought and installed a brand new pressurised refiner from Andritz, which came with practical support from the Austrian manufacturer. "The Centre was on a shoestring budget at the time," recalls Dr Elias.

Harry Earl and Bart Banks were still involved in the BioComposites Centre. Dr Earl was in fact employed by the Centre to carry out research and he carried out some of the earliest work on the acetylation of wood, among other projects.

Dr Earl's career included much groundbreaking work with the BioComposites Centre, followed by senior technical posts with panel manufacturers. Sadly, Harry Earl, a popular and respected figure in the industry, died, aged 62, in October 2013.

"Our refiner really came into its own from 1994 onwards, working on major research projects," said Dr Elias.

At first the refiner line was shoehorned into the building which the BioComposites Centre occupied within Bangor University. In 2007, it was moved, with the help of Dave Roberts who has since retired, to a new facility on a technology park at Mona on the Isle of Anglesey. Here, there was the space to set it up in a more professional arrangement.

"From the mid-1990s up to 2004, a lot of research was still going on as continuous press line manufacturers Siempelkamp and Dieffenbacher, and all the resin and wax suppliers, were evaluating a huge range of different raw materials for MDF production, such as oil palm residues, rice husks and other agricultural byproducts," said the director.

"We also had a big European research project analysing what happens within the blowline, while at the same time, there was a lot of research into wood raw materials for particleboard production, including the early use of recycled wood.

"We also did a huge amount of research into specialist waxes and moisture resistant adhesives for particleboard," continued Dr Elias.

"Today, most of the research effort is based around alternative resins as the demand for zero formaldehyde resins is high as the industry moves away from fossil fuel-based materials in resins, coatings and plastics, towards bio-based alternatives."

The symposium
In 1997, James Bolton opened the first European Panel Products Symposium (EPPS), in the St George's Hotel on Llandudno seafront, a resort town about 25km from Bangor.

"It was founded as a technical conference, an opportunity to have something technically focused for the industry with a balance of scientific and commercial presentations," said Dr Elias. "That balance is difficult to find, but it is important for the industry to have scientific understanding and development.

People employed in the panel industry used to have a forestry or wood science background, but nowadays they are more likely to be general engineers and they need to have more wood-specific knowledge."

Dr Elias is passionate about this need for education and the role which the symposium can play in the international panel business.

To reflect the importance of an international, rather than just a European, perspective, the European Panel Products Symposium was renamed the International Panel Products Symposium (IPPS) in 2007.

"One of my pleas at IPPS is always for the industry to get more involved in research," continued Dr Elias. "There is a good future for this sector and panels are one of the few products with a really good environmental story to tell and we are not making enough of this as a wood products industry.

From sawmilling to woodworking to panels, the industry is very fragmented."

The IPPS symposium used to be an annual event, but it went to biennial in 2010 when Dr Elias and his team decided to run a Masterclass in alternate, even-numbered, years. This is run within Bangor university's facilities.

"We are planning to celebrate the BioComposites Centre's 25th anniversary with a Masterclass in September/October 2014 and to make it a bigger networking event with a 'prestigious lecture' and gala dinner," said Dr Elias. "We are hoping to attract alumni and past directors of the BioComposites Centre, together with friends and project partners internationally."

Current research
Horizon 2020 is an EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation and has a big research agenda with lots of funding for R&D.

"The Built Environment is an important part of that programme and energy efficiency is a very important area within that sector," said the director of the BioComposites Centre.

Oxford Brookes University in the UK produced a report in February 2013 under this programme, entitled Offsite Housing Review, looking at pre-fabrication of housing in the factory for quick and easy construction on site into housing, for which there is huge demand in the UK.

"There are 100,000 houses currently being built in the UK and this needs to be boosted to around 300,000 but there is a lack of skilled people in the industry," said Dr Elias. "Offsite construction fits well into this, with prefabricated timber panels for timber frame housing and modular construction. Some European countries are far more advanced in this than the UK.

"You get much more flexible accommodation and far better insulation. You can also specify your house just as you would your car, to be energy efficient and with the accommodation and design that you want."

Another member of the BioComposites team is Dr Graham Ormondroyd. He is working on a project that is part of EU Framework 7, the precursor to Horizon 2020.

Indoor air quality
ECO-SEE, which is being coordinated by Bath University in the UK, aims to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) and to tackle the modern 'disease' of Sick Building Syndrome. Kronospan at Chirk in the UK is also a partner in this four-year project.

"Everything we put into a room can potentially release volatile organic compounds [VOCs] and our aim is to find ways of capturing those VOCs with scavenger-type materials," explained Dr Ormondroyd.

"Another very innovative part of this programme is to use photo-catalytic coatings to react with nitrogen and sulphur oxides to produce nonirritant compounds.

"We have just completed another EU programme 'BoostEFF' looking at resource efficiency and recycling in the paper industry and part of that research involved processing waste paper into fibreboard as a mix with wood fibre."

Looking ahead, Dr Elias sees a number of main issues/challenges facing the panel industry.

Formaldehyde is an obvious issue and one which has been dogging the industry for a number of years.

Another issue is wood supply: Access to wood resources in the UK should be easier, said the director. "The Forestry Commission needs to develop improved systems which facilitate wood supply for the panel industry. There is also the threat to wood supplies from the increasing use of biomass for energy."

Then there is research and development: "The industry needs to get more involved in R&D and it needs to adapt and develop new products," continued Dr Elias. "And it needs to use the links into Horizon 2020 to get funding for that research; to develop new ideas into technologies which can be used in its mills.

"The industry also needs to improve its awareness of what is available to it through the European Commission - and through the various national funding bodies."

BioComposite Centre's facilities
Within BioComposite's headquarters building in Bangor University, there is a laboratory where small-scale research projects are carried out under the watchful eye of technician Nick Laflin.

There are two presses here: one is 50 x 50cm; the other has an effective pressing area of 1 x 1m. Both are run on the PressMAN software developed by Alberta Research Council in Canada, which Mr Laflin reported runs very well.

Many interesting experiments have been carried out in these dark recesses of the Bangor basement. Perhaps one of the most bizarre recounted by Mr Laflin was making MDF out of turkey feathers.

"It was one of the most difficult raw materials we have dealt with, but it worked - and made a panel with good mechanical properties!," he said.

The lab has equipment to monitor core temperature and gas pressure, as well as the pressure actually applied to the panel, as opposed to just ram pressure.

Raw materials experimented with include stinging nettles, straw, miscanthus and a wide variety of tree species from different geographical areas. These have been used to make particleboard, MDF and OSB.

Currently, the lab is working on waste fibre from an anaerobic digestion process for agricultural and food waste, using a bio-plastic binder.

Small-scale work carried out in the Bangor lab can be scaled up quite dramatically at the BioComposite Centre's main research facility, 30km away in Mona on the neighbouring island of Anglesey.

Here there is a 12in diameter Andritz refiner which is rated to 16 Bar.

"The refiner is in use on a regular basis," said Dr Elias. "We also have a dryer system designed by Kelvin Chapman of New Zealand which he developed over a period of years according to our requirements."

One of the unique aspects of the Mona refiner is in the plug screw feeder, which is designed not just for wood. This one is more flexible so that it allows for the feeding of longer agricultural fibres, not just wood chips.

At the time of my visit in mid-December 2013, Bronia Stefanowski was working towards her PhD by looking at the modification of panel manufacture to improve IAQ. Miss Stefanowski's research is assisted by funding from ECO-SEE, as it is linked to that programme.

She was preparing samples for wood based panel preliminary characterisation work on six different types of particleboard, MDF and HDF.

These panels were then cut into different sized pieces to be sent to several other research institutes, each of which would carry out the same tests in accordance with EU rules for internal bond, modulus of elasticity, modulus of rupture and formaldehyde/VOC release, for validation of the results.

The work also involves tests for surface energy and fire retardant characteristics. Another long-standing member of the BioComposites Centre's staff is Mrs Ceri Loxton, a wood scientist who is responsible for coordinating an exchange network called LIMNet (Low Impact Materials Network). This is a Welsh government-funded project looking at low impact materials in a number of sectors, including construction applications. Dr Elias explained that, as part of the project: "We are hoping to put together a 'road map' for future low-impact technologies for wood products used in the built environment which will be used to help identify both business and research opportunities".

Not surprisingly, there is also a chemistry laboratory at the Mona facility.

Here, there is a 50 litre reactor to scale up tests on bioresins. This is very complex equipment and there are high safety standards in place for the reactor room, pointed out the director.

In addition to Mr Laflin's lab visited earlier, within Bangor University there is a whole floor of laboratories, as well as several other single laboratories, all dedicated to the BioComposites Centre's work.

The last 25 years have seen a lot of changes in - and a lot of challenges for - the wood based panel industry globally.

Twenty five years ago, formaldehyde was not really an issue and VOC was an acronym that would have meant very little to most people, while IAQ as a concept probably didn't exist. There was no Life Cycle Analysis and panel mill managers would never have dreamt in their worst nightmares that they would be fighting off the energy industry to obtain wood raw material.

On the other side of the coin, those 25 years have seen enormous growth in panel production and enormous strides in technology, which has immeasurably improved the panel manufacturing process and panel quality, as well as the development of 'added value' panel types.

Those positive developments didn't happen by themselves, or by panel mills using trial and error. They were brought about by dedicated scientific research by bodies such as the BioComposites Centre working with the industry.

Rob Elias and his team can look back on the first 25 years of the BioComposites Centre with some pride in the work it has done for - and the contribution it has made to - panels.

It would seem certain that they can also look forward to solving plenty more challenges in the years ahead, with a business which is well equipped to do just that.

Pre-press and 1 x 1m hot press at the Mona facility
Bangor University main building.Photo courtesy Philippa Botting
Nick Laflin in his laboratory in Bangor
Bronia Stefanowski with some of her test samples
The refiner at Mona
Samples of test products made at Mona and Bangor from unusual raw materials