Last spring, a team of chemists at Saint Mary’s University collaborated with Port Hawkesbury Paper in hopes of developing a home-grown solution to the global shortage of N95 respirators masks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Results from the study suggest the Nova Scotia pulp and paper industry may have a future in the production of medical-grade pulp for use in personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Dr. Christa Brosseau

“Our motivation for the project was two-fold,” explains Dr. Christa Brosseau. “We wanted to see if we could help support the needs of frontline healthcare workers while also exploring potential new opportunities for the Nova Scotian pulp and paper industry.”

Dr. Brosseau is a professor in Saint Mary’s University’s Faculty of Science and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry & Materials. In 2020, she received a grant from Research Nova Scotia to explore innovative chemical strategies to help determine if Nova Scotian pulp mills can produce medical-grade pulp for use in PPE such as N95 respirator masks. At the time, the sole Canadian mill producing medical-grade pulp, located in British Columbia (B.C.), was struggling to keep up with demand.   

The medical-grade pulp produced in B.C. is derived from western red cedar and is created using a kraft pulping process. Using their combined expertise in the areas of chemical synthesis, materials characterization and process development, Dr. Brosseau and her research team committed to developing an innovative “made-in-Nova Scotia” approach to create a similar product using local species, fir and spruce, and a completely different pulping process known as thermomechanical pulping. 

Working collaboratively with Port Hawkesbury Paper Mill, who provided the pulp for experimentation, the team analyzed 13 different pulp samples and determined thermomechanical pulp to be the correct fiber diameter and morphology for potential end use in non-woven textiles, such as those used in surgical masks, garments and drapes.  

“These results are exciting because thermomechanical pulp has not been used in this application before,” says Dr. Brosseau. “It’s our recommendation that this opportunity be further explored in collaboration with an industry partner.” 

The project also explored the use of thermomechanical pulp as a material to produce an all-wood pulp N95 respirator mask. Typically made primarily from synthetic polymer materials such polypropylene and polyester, an all-wood N95 mask would be an environmentally friendly alternative. According to Dr. Brosseau, the final paper products from Port Hawkesbury Paper show promise for future N95 filtration layer development but require further investigation. 

“We chose this project as part of our COVID work specifically because it held the promise of supporting both a sustainable forestry industry and responding to the pandemic”, says Stefan Leslie, CEO of Research Nova Scotia. “The research community continues to demonstrate its creativity and initiative.”

To Dr. Malcolm Butler, Vice-President, Academic and Research at Saint Mary’s University, Dr. Brosseau’s work is a great example of the world-class research taking place at Saint Mary’s. 

“Faced with a global pandemic, Dr. Christa Brosseau and her team quickly used their expertise to solve a problem,” he says. “Their research has the potential for significant applications in Nova Scotia, the rest of Canada and the world, and we are proud to be part of the solution.”

To further contribute to the Government of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia’s efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak, Research Nova Scotia (RNS) continues to provide rapid response funding from its Research Opportunities Fund. This fund was created by the Province of Nova Scotia to enable RNS to provide financial support to research projects that have the potential to benefit Nova Scotians.

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