While forest bioproducts are becoming of increasing interest to the Northern economy, knowing exactly where to look for their source plants and trees across the region's broad natural expanses can be problematic.
That's where Dr. Jeff Dech comes in.
As the first chair of forest bioproducts research at Nipissing University, Dech is spearheading a five-year, $1-million project to create a new software tool capable of predicting the location and quality of such materials in Northern Ontario. The project is now entering into its second year.
"The impetus for the project is that there are many resources in our forest, aside from those that we have traditionally used, and people have an interest in this new bioeconomy," says Dech.
"There may be hundreds of products that are available as resources from our forests and a significant barrier we have to possibly making use of these products is a lack of inventories."
Although the development of such inventories is key to driving the future Northern bioeconomy, there are significant obstacles to doing such work manually. Heading into the forest regions of Northern Ontario to methodically hand-count every plant, every fungus and every tree would require so much time and effort as to be impossible, he says.
Instead, much of the initial work is to do enough on-the-ground research to be able to create predictive models which then will feed into a software kit capable of estimating a number of factors. This includes where natural materials occur on the landscape, as well as how their supply and quality will change over time either naturally or after a sustainable harvest.
The project is being undertaken by Dech and a second full-time associate, as well as four students, though more help may eventually come onboard.
Using research previously conducted in the area by the Forestry Research Partnership and others, Dech's work is currently taking place within the Timmins-area Romeo Malette Forest.
From May to October, the researchers travel there to conduct field work, collecting data and characterizing the environment. In the off-months, they do follow-up lab work and process the collected samples.
Following these efforts, the team will be able to better understand the role played by such factors as the degree of moisture, the type of soil and the topography. In turn, this will help fine-tune the predictive capabilities of the final software tool.
In these early stages, the team has already begun to focus on a few key products to help guide the development of the tool by offering specific examples from which the project can move forward.
One such example includes ground hemlock, an evergreen shrub which occurs below the trees. This family of plants is known to be a source of compounds called taxanes, which have been developed into drugs for cancer treatment. It's hoped that, in time, users of the software will be able sit at their desk and produce a map indicating where taxane-generating plants may occur and how much is likely to occur at a given site.
While many of these "understory" plants are a central focus for the project, researchers are also examining the trees themselves, in a move which Dech refers to as looking at "both the top and the bottom of the forest."
The use of forest biomass is increasingly being considered for the production of bioenergy, making this particular approach an important one for companies looking to make a business case for related projects.
This research will involve looking at the amount and quality of the trees available in forests that have never been harvested, as well as forests that will enter into a pattern of sustainable harvesting.
Once this has been established, it will open the way for other, more traditional uses of trees such as fibre and lumber.
This kind of work stands to benefit not only resource industries in the North, but is also creating a new research identity for Nipissing University, according to Peter Ricketts, vice-president, academic and research.
"This is a very significant project for Nipissing," says Peter Ricketts, Nipissing University's vice-president of research. "It's the first one that's focused around forest bioproducts, and it represents what is essentially the first industrial research chair here. It really is a win-win for everybody involved."