The International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA) has announced the three global winners of the 2018 / 2019 Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award. A South African student is among the winners.

University of Pretoria Master’s student Martin Wierzbicki along with Elina Pääkkönen (Finland) and Chinmay Satam (US) were lauded for their novel wood-based research projects. They made their official presentations in Vancouver, Canada last week to industry executives at the ICFPA-hosted international CEO Roundtable, a biennial gathering of forestry and forest product companies.

Wierzbicki carried out research on genome-based biotechnology for designer wood. Wierzbicki’s work has focused on how the genetic makeup of trees can be changed to improve how wood reacts to industrial processing to maximise the extraction of biopolymers such as cellulose, lignin and xylan (a complex sugar found in plant cells). Separating wood components into distinct processing streams as cleanly as possible allows each component to be used to make high value products but is hampered by the strong associations between wood biopolymers that make industrial breakdown difficult and costly.

“I have combined genetics, genomics, big data and wood chemistry analyses to build a gene network model,” Wierzbicki explains. “My model treats the tree as a ‘living biorefinery’ where we have control of how the wood is made.”

He hopes that his work will help companies to improve breeding techniques to reduce the loss of valuable components during wood processing and introduce novel properties for advanced biomaterial production in trees.

The international competition – now its second round – aims to attract submissions from aspiring scientists and young engineers who are developing novel solutions using wood fibre, process improvements or other products along the forestry-pulp-paper value chain.

The research projects were judged against the theme of disruptive technologies that can revolutionise the future of forest-based products and services. The 2018 / 2019 contest invited submissions from two particular areas: future generation forestry and innovation in the wood-based industry. These issues are particularly topical as the world seeks greener, sustainable and renewable alternatives to packaging, fuel and materials.

Wierzbicki conducted his research under the supervision of Professor Zander Myburg, director of the Forest Molecular Genetics (FMG) Programme at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI). “The FMG programme is one of the industry’s flagship research programmes and significantly funded by the forestry industry and we are delighted that Martin’s work has been recognised internationally,” says Dr Ronald Heath, Director: Research and Protection at Forestry South Africa.

Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA), was in Vancouver. “We are immensely proud of Martin and his accomplishments.” PAMSA co-ordinated the local South African round and, along with the ICFPA, sponsored Martin to attend the meetings in Vancouver.

Wierzbicki also worked in in collaboration with Professor Shawn Mansfield of the Department of Wood Science at University of British Columbia, Canada. During his undergraduate studies at UP, Wierzbicki was selected as a mentorship student in the FMG Programme in FABI and later went on to also be a mentor himself for undergraduate students.