Homegrown PPE: Chemists Team Up with Nova Scotia Forestry Industry

Listen and subscribe to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia. The Beyond Research Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.

N95 respirator masks are critical in the fight against COVID-19. Amid the pandemic, as borders began to close and global exports began to drop, Canadian healthcare workers were scrambling to secure an adequate supply of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help keep them safe. In response, a team of Nova Scotian chemists got to work on a homegrown solution.

Mission: Sustainable Bioeconomy

Rhys Waters 0:00

Welcome to Beyond Research. A podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.

Stefan Leslie 0:08

N-95 respirator masks are critical in the fight against COVID-19. Amid the pandemic, as borders began to close and global exports began to drop, Canadian healthcare workers were caught in a scramble to secure enough masks and personal protective equipment, or PPE, to keep them safe. In response, a team of Nova Scotian chemists are working to create a solution that’s homegrown.

Christa Brosseau 0:32

Nova Scotian softwood lumber, it’s low cost, readily available and biodegradable. But without new innovation and discovery research, it will remain an unsuitable material for the production of N 95 masks.

Stefan Leslie 0:46

This is Dr. Christa Brosseau, a professor of chemistry at St. Mary’s University and Tier II Canada Research Chair in sustainable chemistry and materials. Today, you’ll hear how in addition to helping meet the needs of frontline health care workers, her research is striving to support the struggling Nova Scotian pulp and paper industry and hopefully, develop an ecologically responsible product in the process. Krista, good morning.

Christa Brosseau 1:12

Good morning.

Stefan Leslie 1:14

So we’re all familiar, I don’t think many of us, certainly not me would have been familiar with n 95, masks six or eight months ago. Now most people know about them, or at least lots of people do. What is it that brought you to think of the idea of a creative way to use a local material, maybe you could explain a little bit about what your project is, but I’m also interested in how you thought this might be something that could be pursued.

Christa Brosseau 1:38

It actually started with a student’s great idea and her connection to her community. At the beginning of this pandemic, of course, our whole research team was working from home and so we had a sort of brainstorming session one day, like how can we pivot a little bit of our research and sort of try to help in this pandemic? Because, you know, we’re not typically pulp and paper chemists. But when during that meeting, actually, it was one my students, Megan Himmelmann. She’s from Liverpool and so she has family who works in the forestry sector, and she said well, you know, can we make a pulp based, you know, N 95 mask and so I asked her to sort of flesh it out a little bit and come back to us with some ideas. And she did. And, and it’s actually through her really ingenious idea that we decided to reach out to Port Hawkesbury paper to see if they’d be interested in a research collaboration. So, as you know, as awful as this pandemic is, it has given us the opportunity to explore a different research avenue, which in the end, could be very beneficial to the forestry sector here in Nova Scotia.

Stefan Leslie 2:46

So Nova Scotia has a long history of using its forests for lumber production and pulp and in previous years there’s been quite a lot of activity. And recently with the closure of a pulp mill, the industry has, as you mentioned before, been hurting a little bit. So can you talk a little bit about how now down to one mill, what the potential of this could be in order to support a more broader forest industry in this province.

Christa Brosseau 3:18

You know, obviously, the demand for this medical pulp isn’t going away anytime soon. And I think this has given us an opportunity to think about other potential markets for the forestry sector within Nova Scotia, I mean, we have a really great sustainable forestry sector that right now is struggling a little bit. And so if we can look at new potential market sources, I think that’s really exciting. And to be a part of that, you know, transition, even in terms of the way we think about the forestry sector here in Nova Scotia, to me, it’s great.

Stefan Leslie 3:57

This is a significant endeavor that takes the coordination of lots of moving parts and lots of skills and backgrounds and talents in order to make this research project a reality. It must be exciting as well for all of you, students and you leading the lab.

Christa Brosseau 4:13

Absolutely. And you know, during pandemic times it’s even more than that, because we’ve had to have support from the entire department to spread out into multiple labs to allow for physical distancing of our researchers, and of course, support from the university to allow us to return to campus in the first place to engage in this important research. One of the integral parts of this project is my team member and my colleague, Dr. Robert Singer, who is an organic chemist. So for us, it was really great to be back in the research lab under, you know, admittedly different circumstances but just to be back and working and to feel as though you’re part of the solution or trying to help in this pandemic.

Stefan Leslie 4:57

So let’s talk a little bit about your partnership, your arrangment with Port Hawkesbury paper. As you mentioned, it’s the last remaining operating pulp mill in this province. So tell me a little bit about how you began to work with them, how you reached out to them, what their interest is in this, how they’re helping your research?

Christa Brosseau 5:15

Yeah, so I really just sort of cold called them and I floated the idea about using thermal mechanical pulp for this application, and that’s not something that’s been done before. Kraft pulp has been used in Canada for this application, and so they were really excited to come on board. And they’ve been really great partners ever since. They’re supplying us with the pulp that we need in the laboratory. They’re helping us to understand the pulp and paper industry because for us, it’s a huge learning curve and for the students as well.

Stefan Leslie 5:48

The mill in British Columbia that’s producing this is running at peak capacity. And so I understand that in Nova Scotia, we’re dealing with a different species, whereas in BC, the other mill that is pursuing this has, of course, western red cedar to use, and also different pulping process. What are those challenges to evaluate if it can work here?

Christa Brosseau 6:08

So when we were looking at this idea, one of the things we noticed is that there’s only one pulp mill in Canada that’s producing pulp that’s suitable for medical grade applications. And one of the medical applications is in a technology called spunlace, where there’s wood pulp that’s combined with a polymer material through a waterjet process to create what’s called a nonwoven fabric. And, you know, up until now, people probably weren’t that familiar with non woven fabrics. But now a lot of people have them on their face right they’re surgical masks, these sort of cheap and disposable fabric materials are made through this process. And so the western red cedar has particular properties that make it really good for the spunlace technology and that includes long soft fibers, really high density. And so we were looking at how can we look at the pulp that’s produced here in Nova Scotia, which is primarily fir and spruce at Port Hawkesbury Paper. And it’s also made through a different process. It’s not a craft process, but a thermo mechanical pulping, which means they take the woodchips, they steam them and then they mechanically grind them. Can we use that kind of a pulp, through some sort of physical and chemical modifications have an end product that’s suitable also for this sort of spunlace technology that can be incorporated into the filtration layer in an n-95 respirator.

Stefan Leslie 7:34

So is there a an environmental benefit as well from a thermo mechanical process itself?

Christa Brosseau 7:40

Yeah, absolutely. So as part of the pulping process, the thermal mechanical pulping process, there is no effluent really generated other than steam, which is really great. And certainly, as chemists, we don’t want to now introduce all kinds of chemicals that have to be treated or collected. And so we’re always mindful of that in the lab, even at bench scale, looking at making sure that the solvents are environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and ideally recoverable. And so those are some of the considerations we have right from the get go.

Stefan Leslie 8:14

And are you reasonably confident that the regular species that are used in the pulping process, so you mentioned fir and spruce, which would be the most common ones, that both from all different parts of this province could be suitable for this kind of process?

Christa Brosseau 8:30

Yeah, we’ve had good indications that the balsam fir in particular, is a fairly good surrogate for the western red cedar. And so for us, that’s exciting, because there’s a great potential there. And in the thermo mechanical pulping process, they can actually tune the ratio of fir and spruce that goes into the pulp. And so that gives us hope that this will have a successful end, and that through fine tuning what goes into the pulp in the beginning, may help with a more successful medical pulp at the end of the process.

Stefan Leslie 9:08

What would be some of the other applications or uses for medical grade pulp through this process?

Christa Brosseau 9:16

Wood pulp is really featuring heavily right now is in the surgical masks, because it is a critical component of that spunlace nonwoven fabric technology. All of the medical gowns that you see, the blue medical gowns, all contain wood pulp. And then there’s also other applications of medical pulp as well, including disposable bed pans that are made out of pulp and so some hospitals globally are using already medical pulp for that purpose. So there’s lots of emerging applications for medical pulp. And you know, as we look at globally moving away from from plastics and petrochemical products, I think that there’s a really bright future for wood pulp.

Stefan Leslie 10:00

So the ambition or the interest would be to produce the pulp but then of course it has to go into another process to actually turn that into an N 95 mask. So then where does the stuff go to be actually produced into a mask or a gown or a bedpan as you mentioned?

Christa Brosseau 10:15

Yeah. So right now where this medical pulp is going is into the United States, and it can also go globally. There are a number of companies that take the pulp and then produce the surgical masks and gowns or intermediate companies that will take the pulp, produce the nonwoven fabric, and then the fabric is outsourced to places that make the masks and gowns. And so you know, in the short term, it really would be taking that the pulp, putting it on a bale and shipping it out for for export to a place that makes them nonwoven fabric.

Stefan Leslie 10:51

You mentioned that you were doing lab scale or bench study right now as you’re in that early exploratory phase. But if you can look forward, what do you hope to produce from this?

Christa Brosseau 11:03

You know, one of our other sort of projects within this project is to look at the creation of an entirely wood pulp based N-95 respirator. So right now, some N-95 respirators include wood pulp, but not all. Usually if there is wood pulp in those respirators, it’s the comfort layer, so the layer against your face, or the layer on the outside that absorbs moisture. But many of the N-95 respirators are entirely synthetic, meaning they contain synthetic polymers. And the problem with that is that they’re sourced from petrochemical feedstock and so not entirely renewable. And the masks as you know, are not recyclable or reusable. Right now, there’s, you know, innovations and trying to reuse these masks, but really, they’re meant to be single use. And so that’s a challenge. And it’s not sustainable. And so the idea of having an entirely wood pulp N-95 respirator that is sustainably sourced, and biodegradable is, you know, really what we need right now.

Stefan Leslie 12:04

Researchers often don’t like me asking this question, but I’m going to ask it to you anyway. Can you look forward and anticipate how long it may be, if things do work out of the experimental phase, when we can actually see Nova Scotia pulp going into the production of personal protective equipment?

Christa Brosseau 12:21

Yeah, that’s a really great question. So we really are in sort of a proof of concept stage right now. Because, you know, one of the the comments back from Port Hawkesbury Paper, when I first floated, this idea was, well, thermo mechanical pulp can’t be used for that end use. And so that’s the research question, right, can it or can it not? And so we’re quite confident that it can be with some tuning in the process. But at the moment, we’re hoping that by the time this project ends, which is in March of 2021, we’ll have a really good proposal for Port Hawkesbury Paper that they could take forward if they were interested in moving into the medical pulp sector, that would be a process that ideally doesn’t produce effluent or if it does, the effluent is biodegradable or recoverable.

Stefan Leslie 13:16

So this is one of those research projects which integrates the needs of the healthcare system, potential economic benefit, but also environmental responsibility. ow often do you see these kinds of projects which can actually bring together even two of these, let alone three of these societal interests?

Christa Brosseau 13:36

Yeah, I mean, not that often. Often, you know, as a researcher, you’re interested in the research question, which could be the healthcare piece, right? And not often do we engage with industry, or consider the economics, but I’ve learned, you know, being part of some of these industry projects at this point, that those are really important considerations to have right from the beginning. Because as a researcher, as exciting as it is to engage in new science and have new discoveries, if you’re really hoping for that discovery to have an impact, you have to think about industry needs and economics of what you’re doing. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere, and the effort isn’t wasted, you know, we all learn something from that research effort, but you don’t have the reward of seeing it move further.

Stefan Leslie 14:28

Christa, thanks for joining me.

Christa Brosseau 14:29

Thanks for having me.

Rhys Waters 14:30

To find out more about this podcast and the research featured in this episode, visit researchns.ca. My name is Rhys waters and we will see you next time.

Dr. Christa Brosseau is a professor of chemistry at Saint Mary’s University and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry & Materials. Her research team is striving to meet the needs of front-line healthcare workers and support the struggling Nova Scotian pulp and paper industry, while developing an ecologically conscious product.