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Idea #7: Stick It to the Pine Beetle

Sorin Pasca turns dead trees into a new building material

By Rob Annandale 25 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Rob Annandale is on staff at The Tyee.

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Bright ideas for 2008.

[Editor's note: Rather than look back over the year that was, the Tyee is offering its readers a dozen New Ideas for the New Year. We'll publish a new one every weekday from now through Jan. 1. They're textbook cases of thinking outside the box, all of them from people trying to make B.C. a better place to live. Later in January, we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for 2008, and will publish a selection.]

For those seeking an alternative to drywall in their home or wanting to protect their office from that clumsy intern who breaks all the flowerpots, Sorin Pasca may have just the thing.

A recent graduate of the University of Northern British Columbia, Pasca has come up with a way to make the most out of the province's mountain pine beetle infestation: concrete made from dead trees.

His tests show that pine concrete is far more water resistant than drywall or gypsum board, and because it can be moulded rather than pressed, Pasca says he can make just about anything with it. Plus, it looks a whole lot better than regular concrete.

"I'm not sure if people are willing to put concrete slabs into their homes," he said. "But in this case, you have half wood, half cement so it's a little bit friendlier."

Although mixing wood and cement is not a new idea -- people first started doing it in Europe decades ago -- cement tends to bind better with sand or gravel aggregate than organic material.

But Pasca says lodgepole pine is probably the best-suited species in North America, and specimens killed by the mountain pine beetle are better yet, probably because they've lost a lot of their sugars and resin.

Devastation

There's no shortage of these trees around Prince George, which is near the epicentre of the infestation. Roughly half the province's mature pines are already dead and current estimates put the toll at 80 per cent by 2013.

"It's devastating," he said about the pest that has taken out as much forest as 30 years of timber operations would in his native Romania.

Ideally, Pasca's concrete would use waste product from mills. But it's not clear what will happen to the local forestry industry when the window of opportunity for salvaging beetle-killed pines closes and the wood becomes too cracked and degraded for commercial use. For now, economies in the Interior are booming as activity is ramped up to allow harvesting before the end of the dead trees' shelf lives.

"After that, I'm afraid just to think what will happen," said Pasca, who claims there are no such time constraints relating to his product. As long as rot has not set in, he can use the wood.

Interest "huge"

He says his tests show pine concrete is "definitely better than gypsum board," but he admits it will be tough to overcome the powerful grip long-established products like drywall have on the market.

Pasca's pinning his hopes on the lower risk of water stains and the versatility that allows pine concrete to take any shape from counter tops to flower pots. In fact, he hopes to build an entire cottage -- from the foundation to the roof -- out of the stuff.

He says he has already received "huge" interest from potential investors, but before building cottages or signing contracts, there will have to be more tests. Pasca wants to be back in the lab in January to determine just how tough this concrete really is. And he knows he needs to come up with an actual marketable product, rather than just a substance.

For now, he's keeping his commercial expectations modest and remembering the big issue.

"It's hard to say this project will take over all this dead wood, but it could be a solution," he said.

"Beyond properties and marketing issues and all that stuff, the most important thing is having another use for this beetle-killed wood."

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