It pours like concrete, it cuts like wood and it’s all thanks to the mountain pine beetle. Beetlecrete, developed by graduate students at the University of Northern B.C., combines blue flakes of beetle-killed wood with Portland cement to form a marbled material with the strength of concrete, but the look and feel of wood. “You can nail into it, you can screw into it and you can cut it with normal woodworking tools,” says Ian Hartley, dean of the school’s graduate programs.
According to Beetlecrete’s Prince George-based marketing team, the substance could soon be making anything from sidewalks to park benches to seismic-friendly houses in China. “We’re making use of wood we have far too much of,” says marketing head Alex Ng.
B.C.’s mountain pine beetle infestation turned 75 per cent of the province’s lodgepole pines into stands of blue-stained, cracked dead wood. The trees are difficult to log and even harder to mill, and by 2024 they’ll be too rotted to use. In the aftermath of North America’s most devastating beetle epidemic, B.C.’s forestry researchers, backed by $5.9 million in new funding, have gone into overdrive figuring out new uses for half a billion beetle-killed trees. “Whenever you have a sense of urgency, a spark is going to be lit,” explains Iain MacDonald, managing director of UBC’s Centre for Advanced Wood Processing.
Unlike green logs, beetle-killed trees are dry when they’re brought in for processing. The logs can still yield two-by-fours and plywood, but due to cracking much of the log ends up on the sawmill floor. That’s where the new research has come in.
“We’re setting the stage where we can look at new product opportunities other than dimension lumber,” says Robert Parisotto, head of pine beetle initiatives at Forestry Innovation Investment Ltd., a B.C. Crown corporation. For three years, Parisotto’s team has pressed, glued and steamed thousands of otherwise useless wood chips into experimental beams, boards and planks. With subtle tweaks to their manufacturing, say researchers, B.C.’s mills can jump-start a new market for cheaper value-added wood products made from the beetle kill.
Lab work has opened the door for an injection of beetle-killed trees into a myriad of non-lumber applications, including floor panels for the European market and rail ties for the Chinese market.
In most cases, beetle-killed wood is just as good as regular trees, say studies. Sometimes, it’s better. The blue-stained logs are better at absorbing preservatives, making them desirable to U.S. wood-treating plants. Wood-plastics are also hitting the drawing board; beetle-killed wood could be ground into flour and mixed with plastic to build decks and playground equipment.
The energy sector has even jumped aboard. B.C.’s wood-pellet manufacturers used to rely on swept-up scraps from sawmill floors, but now they’re using full-sized logs. Beetle-killed trees may even end up in the gas tank: UBC researchers are looking to convert dead pines into a cheaper, non-food-based source of ethanol.
In Colorado, beetles have wiped out an area of lodgepole pine larger than Prince Edward Island. More than 80 per cent of those trees will never make their way to a lumberyard, says Craig Jones, a specialist with the Colorado State Forest Service. Jones gets about two proposals a week for a cutting-edge beetle-killed-pine operation.
Most of the time, short harvest timelines scare investors away. Colorado takes what it can, but most trees are simply chipped and left on the forest floor. “It’s sad, but it’s the economic reality,” says Jones.
The Richmond Olympic skating oval has a beetle-killed roof, blue tables are hitting specialty furniture stores and Beetlecrete countertops are already cropping up in Victoria. Still, much of B.C.’s beetle kill will end up rotting in the field. “There’s just too many trees upon us all at once,” says Parisotto. But long after each “denim pine” is gone, beetle-kill research will have shaped B.C.’s forest industry into a more efficient and resourceful machine.