November 13, 2013  
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Researchers report progress in understanding nanocellulose

Researchers reported significant progress in understanding the makeup, structure, and potential applications of nanocellulose last week during a review meeting hosted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Agenda 2020 Technology Alliance and the USDA Forest Products Lab (FPL), met with researchers from a number of universities to assess findings of their research projects. "The advances in understanding the fundamental makeup of these materials are providing critical insights into how we can use them to meet market needs," observed Agenda 2020 chair Beth Cormier, who is VP-Research, Development, and Innovation at Sappi.

Agenda 2020 collaborated with FPL to organize the second annual review of a suite of FPL-funded projects selected in 2011 in consultation with Agenda 2020. The Forest Products Lab sees significant potential in nanocellulose-based materials. "Success of such applications could accelerate progress in addressing our challenges in forest resource management," commented FPL Assistant Director Ted Wegner, who oversees the program.

The program review directly supports the work of Agenda 2020 in developing knowledge and encouraging pre-competitive research to enable companies to proceed with proprietary developments.

Agenda 2020 recently launched a Cellulosic Nanomaterials action team co-chaired by Paul Durocher of Sappi and Phil Jones of Imerys. The team met prior to the research review meeting and is working on plans for an open workshop in March in conjunction with a nanocellulose workshop sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). The NNCO, which manages the National Nanotechnology Initiative, also participated in last week's review session.

Universities reporting on their research included the University of Tennessee, Georgia Tech and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, Penn State, North Carolina State, Oregon State, University of Maine, and Purdue. Researchers reported on the development of advanced techniques using light and infrared chemical imaging to examine behavior of the materials at the nanoscale. They could also see the effects of enzymes and mechanical processes to break cellulosic materials into their component parts. Incorporation of crystalline nanocellulose appeared to improve fiber-polymer interactions. Such insights will facilitate development of commercial applications. Nanocellulose was shown to have potential application in barrier packaging, insulation, shock absorbers, and as a feedstock for 3-D printing.

Representatives of the Nanocellulose pilot plants at FPL and the University of Maine reported growing experience in manufacturing optimization. They also noted increasing shipments of test materials, suggesting growing interest in the U.S. and overseas. They suggested that materials substitution to reduce cost and specialty applications for new products would be the near-term uses.

The Oak Ridge-hosted event was attended by representatives from ORNL's Advanced Manufacturing and BioEnergy programs. There is growing interest in the use of lignin and cellulose to make a range of bio-based products. The need to capitalize on U.S. forest and agricultural resources to deliver high-value bioproducts is recognized by ORNL and other DOE laboratories. Oak Ridge scientists are conducting internally funded strategic research to investigate the structure, behavior, and applications of lignin and cellulose. Agenda 2020, FPL, and ORNL have agreed to initiate a collaboration on a strategy to maximize the value of domestic forest resources.

Agenda 2020 is a non-profit organization established for scientific and educational purposes, that works to transform the forest products industry through innovation in its manufacturing processes and products. Guided by the Technology Roadmap that presents important R&D needs, its work is grouped in four platform areas including: Sustainable Manufacturing, Value from Biomass, Novel Materials, and Sustainable Forest Productivity.

This report was written by Kathleen Bennett, Principal, [email protected].


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