A video case study by Bangor University and KESS 2 funded PhD researcher Carlo Kupfernagel, his academic supervisor Dr Morwenna Spear and company supervisor Dr Andy Pitman of Lignia Wood. Their project is titled “Wood modification: Adding value to a locally grown CO2-Sink” and in this video Andy and Carlo tell us more about their experience of conducting research as part of the KESS 2 programme.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this interview was recorded in December 2020 remotely via video call. Subtitles are available in Welsh or English through the video settings or you may read a transcript of the interview below. With thanks to our speakers; Dr Morwenna Spear, Carlo Kupfernagel and Dr Andy Pitman.
Student and Company Case Study : Interview
[Morwenna] Carlo, can you tell me something about yourself and maybe your academic background? How did you come to be involved in this project?
[Carlo] My name is Carlo, I’m a first year PhD student at Bangor University. My academic background is in process engineering. I studied process engineering and then I specialised on wood and fibre technology. I’m working together with Lignia wood company for this PhD.
[Morwenna] Andy, tell me something about yourself and what Lignia sees as the benefit in this study?
[Andy] My name’s Andy Pitman, I’m the technical director at Lignia wood company. We’re a start-up company, we’ve been in operation for around three years, manufacturing product for the last year. As a start-up, we had considerable emphasis on research and development, bringing the product from pilot through to commercial scale. From the outset of the project, we worked with Bio Composites [Centre] at Bangor University, using their expertise in wood science and wood chemistry. It’s given us a real head start. It was a university I graduated from myself and so I was familiar with the technology that they can provide to help with businesses moving forward.
[Morwenna] How long have you been involved in the KESS 2 project, Andy? And what attracted you to this sort of funding? Did it help solve a particular problem for your company?
[Andy] Yes, we’ve had several research grants from the UK and Welsh Government. The KESS 2 grant was an excellent opportunity for us to bring on board a young researcher to help address some particular technology issues surrounding our wood modification process. Although our wood modification process works and has been around for a considerable period of time, understanding the theory of how it works is still not resolved. And it’s only through knowing this that we can further improve our processes and our products.
[Morwenna] Carlo, tell me a little bit about what you’re researching and what your methods are for addressing this challenge?
[Carlo] I’m studying the modification of wood with a specific kind of resin. This modification involves the change of the cell wall on a molecular scale. Now, the result of this modification is significant property enhancement, which allows the use of timber in applications which would usually lead to excessive swelling or, after a certain time, to the decay of the wood. My research, specifically, addresses the role of different and locally grown timber. So, the methods that I’m using depend on the scale that we are looking at. At the cell wall level, I am using microscopy to see how the resin is distributed. And then at a larger scale, I’m more interested in properties like the hardness or the strength or the natural durability.
[Morwenna] What are the benefits of this collaboration between academia and industry for you both? And as you’re working together as partners within this, I’ll come to Carlo first, and then Andy, for another comment;
[Carlo] Firstly, this PhD is fully funded, and the student fees are waived. This way, I can concentrate completely on my research. Then I’m working together with very knowledgeable people who have both industrial and academic expertise, I get training on state-of-the-art technology. And I’m working on a practical project with connections to the industry and my company partner provides me with many resources, such as materials.
[Morwenna] Anything from your side, Andy, about this collaboration?
[Andy] From the company’s point of view, we gain in several ways. Firstly, we have a young, enthusiastic researcher who’s providing another line of thought, and some real focus on particular elements of their PhD project, which means that they can really drill down into what has been done already, according to the scientific literature, and bring in techniques not available to us in business and industry – bringing these techniques to our attention and showing us what can be achieved. So that’s absolutely vital, to help us to stay ahead in terms of technology. It also gives us access to a range of researchers and their networks. Carlo’s supervisors often provide critical guidance and an alternative set of eyes on data and methods. So, all around, all parties win from this collaboration.
[Morwenna] Carlo, tell me a little bit about your discoveries or your outcomes that you’ve found to date, what do you hope to discover as you keep looking forward? Because I know it’s not very long that you’ve had in the lab with the COVID situation, you had a bit of a delay in getting started.
[Carlo] Yes, I’m still at the beginning of my practical work. Although I have already some indications telling me which species might be suitable for the process and which maybe not. So, at the moment, I’m in the process of gathering some fundamental data about the effect of species on process. And the resin distribution is also a critical subject for me. I’m trying to approach those by microscopy and I already have some interesting insights. For example, all the different species that I’m looking at behave completely different in terms of the resin distribution, and the resin distribution is crucial, because it determines how effective the process can be.
[Morwenna] Andy, what’s the impact or the positive effect of this R&D work for your company?
[Andy] We’re the first wood modification company that set up commercially in Wales. And at present, we import timber from the other side of the world for use in our process, because the timber has a specific set of properties that make it easy to get resin into the wood and throughout the structure. We’re a company that believes in combining nature and technology, and so are concerned about the environmental impact of what we do. There has been great interest in using resources from closer to home. This is to reduce the carbon emissions associated with the transport of timber. There’s also great interest in the UK in increasing our forest cover, including that in Wales, and making better use of the timber that we grow here in Wales. We’re very interested in looking at what can be achieved with local timbers. This is a real environmental benefit and we’ve placed a lot of research emphasis in this area.
[Morwenna] What are your hopes for the impact or the potential impact of this research for the wider industry, or for Wales or further afield?
[Carlo] So, I really hope that in the long run, we can use locally grown timber for this process and understand how the process may be different for these local timbers. And then I also hope that the service life of those products can be extended significantly.
[Morwenna] That’s sounds very similar to Andy’s ambitions from the company side, so these two map very well together. Do you have any other comments about the Wales or wider impact of the research, Andy?
[Andy] I personally believe that forestry and forest products offer Wales great potential going forward. And the real way to see the economic and social benefits is for value to be added to the wood in the country of origin. So, I’m keen to see Welsh wood products, including Lignia, more widely used and for them to be more widely used they have to have the right properties. And with improved use, we will see more employment generated in Wales and because of the whole benefits of forestry. So social activities for people through to benefits for biodiversity all add value to Wales. So, it’s economic, social, and environmental.
KESS 2 Highlights
[Morwenna] Has KESS 2 opened any further opportunities for the company and future grants or projects or patents? And job creation you’ve just mentioned in fact;
[Andy] Yes, the KESS 2 grant is one of a series of grants we have running with Bio Composites. It brings enormous benefits, it means that supervisors and company researchers and businesspeople talk together frequently. We’re made aware of opportunities, new pieces of equipment, new elements of funding, changes in legislation and changes in the way the Welsh Government approach things. We become aware of these simply by the interaction. Although it’s been a difficult year with COVID, one of the things I was incredibly impressed with was the recruitment process that brought Carlo to us. And for Carlo as a student, the first part of his PhD was much tougher having to work remotely. But on the other side of the coin, Carlo really did a good job of digging into the relevant literature, and a lot of up to date literature that we weren’t aware of, which was a good start. And I would say, in holding him back from the lab, it meant that when he went to the lab, he was he was far more organised and focused with thoughts, which has led to some quite rapid results. I’ve kept quiet on many occasions because normally, with a researcher, there’s an element at the start of having to push the researcher. But with Carlo, it’s quite the opposite. It’s realising we have somebody very focused, and very capable practically. So, we’re seeing rapid results, and results that help explain some of the things that we’ve seen ourselves in the company, which, again, is good to understand and start asking questions about why we see those things.
[Morwenna] Excellent, there’s high praise there. The next question’s for you, Carlo, Have you had any opportunities to attend conferences or other experiences through the KESS 2 project so far? Or do you have intentions to do more of that in future? It sounds like you’ll have plenty of results to present.
[Carlo] Yes, I did attend some conferences so far, but mainly online ones. But I’m really hoping to attend some more of these, and maybe do some trips. I’m also looking forward to visiting Andy at his company when this is possible. And yes, I think as there’s a lot of potential for presenting results and writing papers and doing collaborations.
[Morwenna] That sounds very good. A question to Andy now, have you got any advice for others who were thinking of getting involved from the company side with R&D through the KESS 2 programme?
[Andy] Yes, absolutely. The benefits of collaborating with a researcher at a university in Wales are just too many to count. There are some of the benefits you would expect, so perhaps a focused bit of research on a problem for the company or an element of new work, but it’s the things that you don’t expect that are really useful and I think it’s important if you want to get the best out of it, to form a really good relationship with the researcher and their supervisors early on. So, I’ve been made aware of publications, of techniques that I thought wouldn’t work, which through insight from a new PhD student has demonstrated things have moved on over the last 20 years. So, the benefits are enormous. Think of the access to those extra minds in academia who have experience from wider industries, and the technology, the analytical equipment that’s available to universities that we couldn’t dream of affording to run internally at our company. We get access to that, and skilled technicians who are used to operating the equipment.
[Morwenna] Carlo, where do you see this is leading, where do you think you’ll be at the end of the PhD programme?
[Carlo] First of all, looking at near the future, I’m hoping to get some papers published and getting my PhD done. Then, in the more distant future, I’m really hoping to work as a researcher and perhaps getting to know some other areas.
[Morwenna] And Andy, what do you think is next for Lignia as a business?
[Andy] I think more collaboration with academia to develop more products, more innovative products, out of Welsh timber is where the future lies. It’s fascinating that we have one of the best wood research centres here in Wales and I want to see more young researchers trained up here. We need more young, dynamic researchers coming into our industry.
[Morwenna] Thank you very much for your time, both of you. It’s been really interesting talking.