In 1974 BC sawmill pioneer Conrad Miller saw a two-by-four damaged piece of lumber that had been run over by a log loader.
He remarked to his son Jerry that there just had to be a way to put it together and sell it.
Decades later, his grandson, Owen Miller, never forgot that dream and is working to make it a reality.
“That’s really where this whole thing started,” Miller said.
His father and grandfather worked on the concept, but it wasn’t until 2019 that Miller decided to go all in to try and make it happen.
Miller’s company, Deadwood Innovations, uses mechanical and chemical technology to essentially deconstruct wood and put it back together. This is especially useful for less desirable wood.
“We can get those low-quality, small-diameter softwoods that are cracked, affected by pine beetles, or fire-burned with a layer of charcoal on the outside. Our process doesn’t matter,” Miller said. “We can transform it into a new engineered wood product that has different dimensions and densities.”
Miller noted Jamie Gordy, a wood science specialist, was key in developing the company’s chemical processes.
Target feedstocks include underutilized species such as aspen and northern hardwoods that typically do not have uses that make economic sense.
“It’s really about getting more value out of these resources,” Miller said. “They are a difficult tree to do anything else for engineered wood processes, but our process is species agnostic. The type or quality of the tree does not matter. We can transform it and give it desirable characteristics that mother nature did not.”
Deadwood Innovations secured federal and provincial funding to evaluate, engineer, procure and construct a pilot-scale manufacturing plant at the site of the former Tl’Oh Forest Products plant in Fort St. James. Funding is provided through the Indigenous Forest Bioeconomy Programme.
The team is still considering which new board engineering products to produce and which markets to target. They are conducting market research to help with the decision. Some of the initial ideas include rail ties, insulated panels and studs and dimensional densification products to replace steel joints in commercial building applications.
In addition to creating engineered wood products, the team believes the technology can be used to improve timber. The technology is able to take a twisted or checked dimensional chart and densify it and straighten it. It can transform it into a unique dimensional product or create a premium table.
It can also be used for conditioning biomass fuel. The team can take saturated waste from a sawmill and create a low moisture content and predetermined pellet size.
Shaking the tree
Miller started Deadwood after spending 15 years building his career in the oil and gas sector.
He decided the time was right to give his grandfather and father’s work a big boost.
But he wanted to do it right.
One of the company’s first moves was to form a joint venture with the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation.
“My whole team is from Fort St. “That partnership has been collaborative and great, and they really believe in what we’re doing and are part of our journey.”
Chief Aileen Prince called the joint venture an example of the country’s growing participation in forestry in its traditional territories.
“Commercializing this technology will create more economic opportunities in our community and find new uses for waste, protecting our forests and wildlife for future generations,” Prince said in a press release.
Miller hopes their new approach could shake up the forestry sector.
“Research and development is a core competency of oil and gas businesses — the core ones,” Miller said. “I’m comfortable saying it’s not a core competency of the big sawmill and engineered wood products businesses in North America. So when you’re a startup and you introduce something new, there’s a lot of skepticism because there haven’t been a lot of game-changing technologies.”
The tentative schedule is to begin the commercial-scale engineering and design study in September.
“You have to tease out and figure out which products to target first, then design the facility around the product, keeping flexibility in mind,” Miller said.
The time frame of the process is 18 to 24 months. That’s when Miller believes the team will have all the information to make the final investment decision.
“This technology is scalable and suitable for any fiber basket,” Miller said. “Our goal is to develop projects and commercialize in all forestry-based communities, starting in the province and then moving across North America to move to less volume and more value.”