Lego helps researchers build innovative machine

UBC research engineers utilized everything from low-tech Lego(TM) to high tech blood measurement concepts to create a revolutionary new instrument for the $800-million-a-year pulp and paper industry.

This instrument, the Fibre Quality Analyzer, recently earned a 1998 NSERC/Conference Board of Canada Synergy Award for university-industry R&D partnerships.

A decade ago Richard Kerekes, director of UBC's Pulp and Paper Centre, began to search for a method to improve paper quality by measuring wood pulp fibres on-line. Video imaging seemed the most promising approach.

A key requirement was a flow cell that would align and position fibres in a flowing stream so they could be imaged.

Research on this problem began at UBC with support from the Mechanical Wood-Pulps Network of Centres of Excellence.

The solution -- found in collaboration with the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (PAPRICAN) -- adapts hydrodynamic focusing -- used in medicine to measure blood cells -- to pulp fibres.

The research was resourceful as well as innovative.

"We were looking for ways to test flow cells and optics configurations quickly and did this by building a test bed from Lego(TM)," says James Olson, a co-inventor of the flow cell and now a research engineer at PAPRICAN which patented the flow cell with UBC.

Following further development at PAPRICAN, a prototype was built and licensed to Ontario-based OpTest Equipment Inc.

The original analyzers were floor-mounted, but the current model is a compact bench-top design, with image performance sped up from one to 100 fibres a second. These units have been sold around the world.

"It's gratifying to have seen the analyzer evolve into a commercial success," says Kerekes. "It was particularly gratifying to receive the award on the 20th anniversary of the partnership between UBC and PAPRICAN."

Last year, the Pulp and Paper Centre assumed a major role, with BCIT and PAPRICAN, in an $8.5 million Forest Renewal B.C. research and teaching initiative.

"Over 40 per cent of B.C.'s timber harvest is manufactured into pulp and paper," says Kerekes. "Investments in the province's post-secondary programs in this sector will significantly strengthen B.C.'s ability to add value to its forest resource."