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.”
CIC was founded about a decade ago because Boeing and other aerospace industries in Winnipeg were already doing research on composite materials.
The biomaterial experts at CIC have developed innovative biocomposites that are lighter and more environmentally friendly than conventional materials such as fibreglass.
During a tour earlier this year, Potter pointed out hemp and flax components developed or in development at the centre, including the front end of an electric car, a motorcycle gas tank and an engine hood for a MacDon swather.
CIC scientists have also met in the past year with representatives of Ford and Hyundai, who want to use biocomposites for car components.
For example, Hyundai may use hemp and flax fibres to make wheel arches for its popular Sonata sedan.
But before that happens, Potter and others at CIC need to answer a critical question: can flax and hemp growers in Western Canada consistently produce high quality fibres?
“We know you can produce quality stuff with these (bio) materials,” Potter said.
“What we don’t know … is can you do this 10 million times over the next 10 years? Because we’re going to be producing hundreds of thousands of vehicles with this in it.”
Automobile manufacturers might want to use a hood made from hemp to reduce the weight of their cars, but they won’t be happy if one hood out of 1,000 turns to mush when it hails.
Potter said options are available to solve the consistency challenge, including one that seems futuristic but is actually feasible.
“This is the vision: to have an unmanned aerial vehicle flying over a field of flax with a hyperspectral imaging camera on it, telling you what the quality of those fibres are,” he said.
“It will tell you if a field … is suitable for the Hyundai Sonata.”
The biocomposites industry faces other technological obstacles as well, but CIC scientists are working with scientists and facilities in the United States and Canada to overcome them.
They are collaborating with the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon to study the molecular structure of flax and hemp fibres and working with Genome Canada to understand the genetic aspects of flax fibre.
CIC joined forces with institutions and companies in North Dakota and Minnesota earlier this year to form a non-profit called the Great Plains Bioproducts Consortium. That’s because researchers in those states have expertise in the other component of biocomposites: natural resins.
“There’s a great complementary to what we’re doing in Manitoba and what they’re doing in North Dakota and Minnesota,” Potter said.
The consortium will hopefully become a one-stop shop for manufacturers who want to use bioproducts instead of conventional materials.
Potter sees a future for the Canadian Prairies, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin to become a world leader in the biomaterials sector.
McKay said hemp and flax growers may soon see financial returns from a thriving and global biomaterials industry.
“I think we’re about two years away from some major utilization … which may, depending on the utilization, provide a very a good return for farmers (that grow) flax or annual hemp,” he said.
“They could (become) a crop of choice.”