Spinning crop fibres into gas tanks

December 27, 2012

Assuming the biocomposite industry reaches its potential, Potter envisions a future in which flax and hemp growers will receive true value for the fibres inside those crops.

In this future, a flax grower from Melita, Man., may see much more than flaxseed a few years from now when he looks over his field.

“Not only is this my oilseed field, it’s also my Hyundai Sonata field, this is my MacDon tractor field and this is my Bell helicopter field,” said Potter, sector manager for product innovation with the Composites Innovation Centre (CIC), a Winnipeg non-profit that develops novel materials for the aerospace, transportation and infrastructure industries.

Potter is trying to ensure that flax, hemp, wheat and other agricultural fibres have consistent quality so that manufacturers can turn them into consistent products.

“Our agricultural producers sit on a vast resource that is not optimally used yet,” Potter said from behind his desk inside CIC, a sparkling materials laboratory and office space that opened in southwestern Winnipeg in 2012.

“You can get everything from medicines to functional foods to building materials from the same resource, if you handle it appropriately.”

Other scientists in Canada are focused on the medicines and nutritional benefits that can be derived from crops, but Potter’s passion is materials.

After earning a PhD in materials science from the University of Edinburgh, Potter emigrated to Canada to take a job with what is now FP Innovations, a forest industry research centre in Vancouver, where he specialized in material quality assessment at the molecular level.

After seven years in that role and another seven years in Australia, where he also conducted research on wood fibres, Potter came to Winnipeg in 2010 to take on a new challenge with CIC.

Potter changed gears because he saw the massive promise of agricultural fibres.

“These biomaterials could be very lucrative. The market, globally, for composites is in the billions of dollars,” said Potter, who has a plaque on his office wall documenting his U.S. patent for a method to determine wood fibre quality at the genetic level.

“Someone has predicted that probably 30 percent of that market should be open to biomaterials, based on quality and durability.”

CIC executive director Sean McKay recruited Potter to join the Winnipeg centre because it needed someone with an extensive technical background in biomaterials. However, Potter also arrived with a trait that many scientists lack: communication skills.

“If he was a real scientist-scientist, you’d be scratching your head to figure out what he is (trying) to do,” McKay said.

“He has the ability to (explain) it and give a clarity to it, so it makes sense not only the scientific community but to the funding agencies and the media.”

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“Our agricultural producers sit on a vast resource that is not optimally used yet, you can get everything from medicines to functional foods to building materials from the same resource, if you handle it appropriately.” -Simon Potter, Composites Innovation Centre