Alberta may get straw plant

Construction could begin as early as next summer on a massive new plant that uses Alberta wheat straw to produce medium-density fibreboard.

Daryl Poulsen, senior field operations manager with Great Plains MDF Production Inc., says the proposed plant will eventually use roughly 825,000 tonnes of wheat straw to annually produce the equivalent of 480 million sq. feet of three-quarter inch MDF.

Straw for the plant will be sourced from grain farmers within a 120-kilometre radius of the plant, to be built somewhere in central Alberta.

“The exact location has yet to be determined but it will be in central Alberta…,” Poulsen said in a June 8 interview with The Western Producer.

“We’ve made no formal commitments (regarding location). We’ve been introduced to a couple of sites by various groups but we’re still waiting to make that final selection.”

Proponents of the project say the plant will most likely be located in the area between Calgary and Edmonton and east of Red Deer.

To accommodate the operation, the company will need about 250 acres of land.

About 20 acres would be covered by a one million sq. foot production plant that houses the plant’s machinery and production equipment and value-added service centre.

“We’ll probably contract directly with farmers, although we’re also looking at who might want to broker it for us … do the contracting.”

Straw-based MDF is a relatively new product but according to Poulsen, it is a viable alternative to wood-based MDF that’s used by manufacturers around the world.

Wheat straw is chopped up and processed into a short, cotton-like fibre, which is then treated and pressed into various thicknesses of MDF board.

The proposed Great Plains plant is designed to have two side-by-side production lines, capable of manufacturing MDF in thicknesses ranging from two millimetres up to 38 mm.

The Great Plains plant will be the first of its kind in Canada.

In fact, there are currently only a handful of straw-based MDF plants in the world, including one in California in the early start-up phase and two under construction in China, said Poulsen.

Another project is also getting underway in Egypt.

The Chinese facilities will use rice straw.

As far as functionality is concerned, straw-based MDF is similar to wood-based MDF, with a few notable exceptions.

Straw-based board is about 10 percent lighter than wood-based MDF, which makes handling and transportation easier.

Straw-based material is also easier to cut, meaning less retooling at the manufacturing plant.

In addition to producing the board, the Great Plains facility will include a value-added service centre that will cut boards to exact dimensions for specific manufacturers.

The value-added operation will reduce waste at downstream manufacturing operations.

It will also reduce trucking costs and result in greater manufacturing efficiencies for furniture makers and other users.

“This is going to be an alternative to wood MDF for sure,” said Poulsen.

“It should fit seamlessly into any production facility that currently uses wood MDF, with little or no (indication) that they’ve switched products.”

Poulsen said financing for the project is expected to come from private investors, commercial partners and venture capital.

The site for the plant is expected to be announced within the next three months, after financing is in place.

If all goes well, construction on the facility could begin by July of 2021.

“That might be a bit optimistic now (due to COVID-related delays) but that was our target when we last met as a group in April,” Poulsen said.

“We’re still on track for that I think, but that’s really going to depend on how fast everything comes together here.”

Poulsen said the project will create as many as 1,000 permanent jobs and hundreds of additional seasonal positions and contract opportunities for truckers, balers, stackers and handlers.

“We’re going to be investing between $600 and $700 million before we’re finished,” Poulsen said.

“If you go to rural Canada, you just don’t get large projects like this happening, really.”

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