Oriented Structural Straw Board

2010 Winner: Societal Impact Award

It is rare to witness a technical innovation that addresses a basic human need, improves the living conditions of millions of people, creates a new industry, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and protects the environment on a large scale. Oriented Structural Straw Board (OSSB) is such an extraordinary innovation.

OSSB is a structural building panel created from wheat straw. It is suitable for the construction of homes, schools, clinics, offices and small industrial buildings. It is particularly well-suited for earthquake-prone areas where brick and concrete structures often collapse causing deaths and hardship – such as China. The catastrophic earthquake that struck on May 12, 2008, left an estimated 4.7 million people homeless.

Developed by the Alberta Research Council  (now Alberta Innovates Technology Futures), OSSB is helping to rebuild lives and homes destroyed the natural disaster.

Netherlands-based Panel Board Holding Ltd. (PBH) is using the technology at its plant in Shaanxi province, which opened in October 2008. The plant can produce up to 5,000 four-by-eight-foot panels a day, enough to build between 30 and 35 houses. That’s about 11,700 families in homes every year. PBH plans to build two more factories in China.

Without the expertise provided by ARC the plant could not exist. Because it does, thousands of earthquake victims now have homes.

The OSSB story began on Canada’s prairies in the 1990s when excessive waste straw was burned to clear land. Researchers at ARC looked for ways to use the waste and developed technology to make building panels. Interest for OSSB technology was lukewarm in North America because forestry-based construction materials are readily available.

“We knew the technology was too good to sit on the sidelines,” says Wayne Wasylciw, Technical Director Forest Products, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. “So we went outside of Canada and found PBH. They thought it would be a great fit for China.” China needs 200 million new houses in the next 20 years. It doesn’t have enough trees for large-scale lumber production. But it has plenty of wheat straw.

Using OSSB for construction in earthquake-sensitive rural China makes sense. The panels are more flexible than bricks and buildings are less likely to completely collapse in an earthquake. It also makes economic sense

“China is undergoing unprecedented development in its cities, but there’s very little rurally based industry,” explains Mr. Wasylciw. “Farmers will get income from growing and selling straw, instead of burning it as waste, and people will be employed in the factory to make straw boards.”

OSSB is also environmentally friendly. It uses renewable resources, reduces carbon emissions and reclaims land for agriculture. With OSSB, farmers no longer burn straw, releasing greenhouse gases; they grow it to build straw boards instead of mining their fields to find clay for construction materials.

Mr. Wasylciw is confident North Americans will also embrace OSSB. For now, he says the international attention keeps Alberta on the forefront as a centre of technological excellence

“We are showing that Alberta can find meaningful, world-class solutions for any environment,” Mr. Wasylciw says. “People all over the world seek us out for technology; and we bring people from all over the world to work with us on technology, which exposes us to other opportunities.”