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Flax and hemp could become a green particleboard alternative, says UBC researcher

particleboard alternative

particleboard alternative
UBC researcher Solace Sam-Brew says the economics of using flax and hemp to make a particleboard alternative don’t work now, but soon could.
A particleboard alternative? Wood scientist Solace Sam-Brew sees the benefits of furnishing homes with products made from flax and hemp.

Sam-Brew, who recently graduated with her PhD from the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, points out that flax and hemp are widely available in Canada in general, and in the West in particular.

“It’s worth considering their viability as alternative raw materials to wood for particleboard production,” she says.

Particleboards are used in a variety of products including shelves and countertops. They are made from wood chips and sawmill shavings or sawdust, and is held together by a synthetic resin.

“Sam-Brew evaluated the characteristics of flax and hemp residues. She determined their physical and mechanical board properties by soaking and breaking hundreds of particleboards to test their strength and durability,” said a recent UBC Media release.

So what did she find out?

Although Sam-Brew discovered flax and hemp residues were more desirable, it is not economically viable at this time to successfully manufacture these types of particleboards in the country.

“The resin, or glue, needed to produce flax and hemp particleboard is a financial barrier,” she explains. Resin holds the particles in the board together and flax and hemp products use expensive resin, called pMDI, as the substitute for cheap urea-formaldehyde.

Sam-Brew demonstrated in her PhD research the required amount of resin needed for flax and hemp particleboards could be reduced, hence lowering the cost. As well, substituting lignin, a plant binder, for a portion of the pMDI resin, could also reduce the cost.

“According to Sam-Brew, a burgeoning niche market for flax and hemp particleboards exists in Europe. Decades of flax and hemp processing there and the number of companies in business have led to more competitive pricing, continues the UBC release. “Sam-Brew said the business case for a similar industry in Canada lies in a facility willing to take a chance on the sustainable alternative considering the growing competition for wood residue. Wood residue is wood waste from sawmills and joinery manufacturers, like wood chips, shavings, sawdust and trims, all highly sought after for use by multiple industries, including biofuel, pellet, pulp and paper.”

“They’re all fighting over one resource, which can sometimes be in short supply,” adds Sam-Brew. “If a company has to travel long distances to collect the wood waste they need to make their products that costs them money. The particleboard industry could benefit from using non-wood resources if the price is right.”

The potential rise of flax and hemp to replace particle board would be similar in nature to the use of bamboo as an alternative to flooring, due to its physical similarities to hardwood, as well as the benefits of its strength, durability, and eco-friendliness.

Bamboo is also considerably cheaper than hardwood, thus making it a prime choice for many homeowners looking to cut down on costs. It is difficult to say if flax and hemp particleboard production will one day reach the level of bamboo alternative popularity; however, Sam-Brew remains optimistic.

“Flax and hemp particleboards are lighter than wood. The downstream impacts of making a lighter product could mean faster production rates and significant energy and transportation savings.”

“The economics don’t look good now, but they could later,” she concluded.

Below: UBC researcher sees future for flax and hemp as particleboard alternative

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