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Halifax researchers working to turn wood pulp into N95 masks


Researchers at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax are investigating whether Nova Scotia fir and spruce can be converted into pulp for use in medical masks, disposable gowns and even bedpans.

The project was identified as part of a COVID-19 research initiative launched by the province last month but funded independently by Research Nova Scotia. 

“We want to see if in the chemistry lab, through some clever and innovative chemistry, we can transform the pulp that we have into something that would be suitable for a medical-grade pulp,” said chemist Christa Brosseau.

Right now in Canada, a mill in B.C. is the only one in the country to make a medical pulp known as K-10, a component used with synthetic fibres to manufacture some N95 respirator masks and other medical products in demand because of the pandemic.

Harmac Pacific uses red cedar, which has properties desirable for medical pulp, including long, soft fibres and a low shrinkage factor enabling it to keep its shape when it gets wet or dries out.

It also blends easily with synthetics like polyesters.

The Nova Scotia pulp experiment

Starting next month, Brosseau, fellow chemistry professor Robert Singer and a team at Saint Mary’s will search for ways to modify spruce and fir pulp to produce similar properties.

Port Hawkesbury Paper will provide the pulp for experimentation.

“We’re going to look at whether we can make an all-wood pulp N95 respirator by doing chemical modifications in the lab and we’ll be getting a heat press to form our own paper out of this modified pulp,” Brosseau said.

The 10-month research project is funded by a $72,000 grant from Research Nova Scotia.

N95 masks have been in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic because they’re more efficient at protecting wearers from particulates. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

Port Hawkesbury Paper spokesperson Andrew Fedora said the mill is happy to participate.

“Obviously, if there is a new product created, then there might be a potential marketplace for that, but it’s far too early to speculate on something like that,” he said.

The research project comes as the province’s forestry sector reels from the closure of Northern Pulp in January.

Fedora acknowledges “if there were any new market opportunities within forestry here, I think everybody would certainly benefit from that.”

Targeted research

Research Nova Scotia executive director Stefan Leslie said the agency was not looking to help the forestry sector as it considered funding COVID-19 research projects.

The proposal came from Brosseau.

“It is a nice fit. It does demonstrate that when you focus on what you want to accomplish, what society can get out of the research endeavour — whether it’s avoiding a risk or taking advantage of an opportunity — that can support a range of really interesting research discovering new ideas, as well as applications that can lead to economic and social benefits,” Leslie said.

Where the money is coming from

Research Nova Scotia is one of eight agencies that came together in April to form the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition. Other parties include Dalhousie University, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the QEII Health Sciences Foundation.

Brosseau’s project was an unsuccessful applicant under the coalition process, but was funded by Research Nova Scotia alone.  

The coalition has awarded funding for dozens of other research projects from a $1.5-million fund. Project funding is for a maximum of $75,000 each.

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