Cape Breton University is partnering with a New Waterford-based company to produce a valuable compound from birch bark that could be used for medical applications.

CBU chemist Hisham Sleem is working on a process to extract and refine betulin, which sells for $150 per gram.

“Our project focuses on how to extract the betulin in a high yield with a high purity to decrease the cost,” he says.

Sleem is using birch bark that’s produced as a byproduct by B.W. BioEnergy Ltd., a company in Lingan, near New Waterford, which is using birch chips to create activated carbon.

The betulin in the bark has medical applications in the treatment of things like skin cancer, eczema and malaria. It has been used in traditional medicine by the Mi’kmaq to treat skin rashes.

Sleem and his colleagues are writing a patent for the process to extract the betulin.

Meanwhile, Ryan Duff, the business development manager for B.W. BioEnergy, said the company is also focusing on a less expensive, more environmentally friendly process to produce activated carbon from the birch trees.

Multi-billion dollar market

They’re working with a process called pyrolysis where they treat the wood with heat and pressure in the absence of oxygen to reduce it into a very porous activated carbon.

Activated carbon is used in things like water filters, car filters, and to remove mercury from coal fired power plants and heavy metals from waste water. More than 90 per cent of it is made from coal.

Duff said the company began in 2010 with a focus on using biomass to generate value added products.

“It was born out of an understanding that here in Cape Breton we need more economic opportunities and using the wood resource around here in ways other than strictly just burning it is something that spoke to the owners,” he says.

The company is privately owned, with a large part of the investment coming from the owners. The company has also received funding from the Atlantic Innovation fund of ACOA and from Mitacs, a national non-profit organization that brings together industry and university researchers.

Duff said the company is in a pre-commercialization phase, but hopes to soon tap into the multi-billion dollar global market for activated carbon.

“We’re at the stage now where we’re able to go talk to potential customers, find out what their needs are, what their pinch points are, and bring that back to our researchers and find out are we able to solve that.”