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Making nanotechnology pay
by Glenn Ostle

While nanotechnology has been talked about for some time, within our industry not much has been done. One of the first pulp and paper companies to recognize and capitalize on its value is CelluForce, a joint venture of Domtar Corporation and FPInnovations, created in July 2010 to manufacture nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), a recyclable and renewable nanomaterial extracted from trees.

The NCC will be produced in a 35,000 sq ft commercial demonstration plant on the site of Domtar's pulp and paper mill in Windsor, Quebec, Canada, and staffed by about 30 employees from the Windsor mill. The $42 million project, of which $32 million came in the form of government support, was officially inaugurated on January 26, 2012.

CelluForce plans to sell the extract, under the trademarks of "Impact" and "Allure," to clients in the paint and coatings, bioplastics and textile industries. Addition of NCC can make products up to 10 times stronger, according to Jean Moreau, the company's president and CEO and former vice president of finance with Domtar. Moreau now spends much of his time looking for market applications for the CelluForce product. "We're bringing a virtually non-toxic bio-product to market for industries that will no longer need to use environmentally harmful chemicals in the manufacture of their products," he says.

NCC improves strength and toughness in products and can reduce damage caused by wear, humidity and spectral radiation. Light reflectivity (tunable from ultraviolet to infra red), gas impermeability, and stability over time, make possible the creation of many new forest-based nanoproducts that can be used in numerous industrial sectors. The glass industry can use the product in windows as a UV barrier, and in window linings to create color changes when light hits the nanocrystalline molecules. In a paint or coating scenario, the extract acts as a scratch resister to wood-floor varnishes or cabinet finishes.

Moreau notes that the new venture differs from traditional pulp and paper products because "the input is pulp and the output is NCC, which is a specialty chemical ingredient."

CelluForce aims to produce 1 ton/day of NCC starting in 2012 which will be a significant achievement according to Moreau who says that up until now, the largest quantity produced is 3 kilos per week. "We are the only plant in the world producing this. There are some pockets of work around the world, but all are lab operations. We are the only and first semi-commercial facility. It will be a new process so there will be a lot of challenges to get the process from a lab perspective, up and running commercially," he says.

CelluForce uses dry hardwood pulp from the Windsor operation, and converts it to NCC using a revolutionary technological breakthrough developed by FPInnovations (FPI). When the liquid slurry is dried, the product looks like tack powder and ships in bags and on pallets. A little NCC goes a long way. When added to a coating or polymer, the dosage required is very small and one ton of NCC can produce about 50 tons of finished product.

"Pulp and paper applications are at a minimum right now, say Moreau. "Some pulp and paper companies are knocking on our door such as from the packaging side where we can enhance film or barrier aspect or strength. On the coating side, at this point, it is really a specialty product."

One interesting potential application that Moreau cites is for use in security papers. As NCC has "needles" that lean in one direction, it could be used to make paper that can shift colors and make it virtually impossible to copy.

A lot of bio-based efforts are taking place in Canada these days. "I do a lot of conferences and I always tip my hat to the Canadian scientists," says Moreau.

According to Moreau, Domtar is leading the way on this product because when FPI knocked on the door, "John D. Williams and his management team had the vision to realize that it was a risky start up as it was new technology, but realized that we are part of an industry that is going down at the pulp and paper level and we need to invest in new technologies. This is just one of a number in the pipeline.

"If we are successful on the technical side, we could be looking at a significant market size in the range of several ten thousands of tons, which looks quite small, but as a specialty product with nice pricing, it could be a very interesting business venture," said Moreau. "Being the first plant up and running in the world give us a great advantage."

According to Moreau, the demo plant is ultimately just to demonstrate the characteristics of the product. If successful, the company will build new commercial plants around the world.

"We believe we are at the level to create a new market, almost an extension of the pulp market," concludes Moreau. "Taking it to a different level allows us to bring wood fiber into a totally different environment."

To read more about how nanotechnology is re-shaping the pulp and paper industry, see the January/February 2012 issue of Paper360 magazine,("Thinking Small is leading to Big Changes"), available soon at: www.paper360.org, or contact [email protected].


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