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Nanocellulose moves from lab to market

Highlights of the 2014 TAPPI International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials

By Jack Miller

The main message from the 2014 TAPPI International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials, held in Vancouver June 23-26, was that after years of development, nanocellulose is now making the leap from the lab to the market but will take time and require more investment in chemistry, physics, and engineering. Ultimately, the bulk of this funding must come from customers who use nanocellulose in paper making, composites, cement, adhesives, oil and gas drilling, or for a host of other applications.

Presenters from Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, South America and North America, representing industry, academia and government, addressed more than 200 delegates from around the world on a broad range of topics, including: processing of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC); processing of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF); aerogels, hydrogels and foams; alternative sources of cellulose; composites and coatings; characterization of cellulose nanoparticles; hybrid materials; rheology; CNC self-assembly; medical applications; and environment, health and safety. This brief article will only focus on commercial and pre-commercial developments.

Jack Miller, Principal Consultant Market-Intell LLC and Associate Consultant RISI, presented highlights from the new RISI study Nanocellulose: Technology, Applications, and Markets.

COMMERCIAL AND PRECOMMERICAL DEVELOPMENTS

Commercial ventures such as CelluForce, Inc., and the cellulose filament (CF) joint venture between Kruger Inc. and FPInnovations have been widely reported and are well known, as are the pilot and lab facilities of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, the University of Maine, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF), Nippon Paper, and others. At the conference, several new or lesser known and innovative developments were highlighted.

Alberta-Pacific

The conference began with a keynote presentation from Geoff Clarke, Corporate Planning, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries, Inc. (Al-Pac). Working with AITF and the University of Alberta, and a 100 kg per day CNC pilot plant, Al-Pac sees applications in oil and gas drilling, cement based materials, antimicrobial/medical, personal care, and other markets. They project future capacity of 3,500 tonnes per year of CNC if suitable market demand exists. Clarke underscored the need for customers to fund future development, highlighting the importance of a sound business proposition. Clarke noted that the industry must be persistent in “overcoming obstacles and road blocks” and added that “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

CelluForce

Richard Berry, Chief Technology Officer, CelluForce, Inc. traced the evolution of CelluForce from early development work at McGill University through R&D at FPInnovations to the incorporation of CelluForce in July, 2010. Berry cited the obstacles on the road to commercialization, including the long time scale for application development, typically three years, the need for regulatory approval, and the limitation of resources. He reported that CelluForce has received hundreds, if not thousands, of inquiries, and has entered into six Joint Development Agreements and thirty four Technical Collaboration Agreements. Berry advised that CelluForce has its first commercial application, and has two commercial applications at the field or pilot plant stage. Relative to the shortfall in resources and funding, he noted that further funding from Canadian federal and provincial agencies has been approved, and in addition, there is new investment from an” industrial collaborator,” i.e., a customer, and that further financial investment by other industrial collaborators may also be forthcoming. The key to overcoming the obstacles, he said, is to never, never, never give up.

Melodea

Israel's Melodea Ltd is producing CNC from paper mill sludge and variety of cellulose sources. The CNC is being used to enhance products such as water based adhesives, paints, paper and paperboard applications. In addition, Melodea has developed nano structured foam based on CNC. Dr. Shaul Lapidot, Melodea Co-founder and CTO, reported that potential applications include composites for construction, automotive, marine and wind power. Melodea is collaborating with Holmen AB of Sweden, its primary shareholder. It operates a lab scale pilot facility on site, and a 100 kg per day pilot production site “will soon start construction in Europe.”

Blue Goose Biorefineries

In Canada, Blue Goose Biorefineries, Inc. is producing CNC from a variety of biomass sources at a pilot plant in Saskatoon, Sask. Sean McAlpine, Operations Manager, reported that they can produce 30 kg per week of CNC for research and technical evaluation. The process involves an oxidative method using hydrogen peroxide and citric acid to remove lignin, hemicellulose and amorphous cellulose. The process is commercially scalable using off the shelf process equipment in a non-corrosive environment.

American Process

In the U.S., American Process Inc. produces CNF and CNC, in both hydrophilic and hydrophobic (lignin coated) varieties using its proprietary AVAP technology. Kim Nelson, VP Nanocellulose Technology, reported that the AVAP technology is low cost, and involves efficient recycling of chemicals. The process provides enhanced properties and higher yields, and addresses the challenge of low cost functionalization of CNC for compatibility with hydrophobic media. American Process is installing a 1 ton per day demo plant in Thomaston GA.

GL&V

Also in the U.S., GL&V Inc. has developed a low-cost commercial system to produce cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) using mechanical means only. Marc Gerrer, Refiner Business Manager, GL&V, explained that the process was developed and refined with the University of Maine, and that the equipment used in the process can be found in every pulp and paper mill in the world. Since August, 2012 pre-commercial samples of CNF (4,612 lbs., dry basis) and CNC (210 lbs., dry basis) have been distributed to 102 private companies and 60 universities and government labs in 28 countries.

Imerys/FiberLean/Verso

Per Svending, Imerys Commercial Director, FiberLean, opened the session on Markets for Cellulose Nanomaterials with a keynote highlighting a commercial breakthrough with microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) processing and a new commercial installation at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport ME. The FiberLean project was initiated in 2008, with in-house development of process, plant design, and application know-how. With FiberLean, Imerys expanded on its knowledge of grinding processes to develop a low-cost process for co-grinding of pulp with mineral filler that can installed at the paper mill site.

FiberLean produces a fiber/filler composite material that can be readily added to the paper making process. Trials on 14 paper machines on 4 continents demonstrated improved strength, allowing an increase in filler content of up to 17%. With a 2% loading of MFC, and a 10% increase in filler level, one can expect increased initial wet strength, increased bond strength, higher opacity, a tighter sheet with improved coating hold out and better smoothness. With reduced calendaring, gloss levels can be maintained and bulk loss can be limited to 1%. There are 3,000 dry tons per year of FiberLean MFC capacity in operation, and Imerys expects to have 50,000 tons of MFC capacity in five years.

Biofilaments

During the conference, a new joint venture was announced: Performance BioFilaments Inc., a joint venture between Mercer International Inc. and Resolute Forest Products, which is focused on developing commercial applications for cellulose filaments.

MARKET POTENTIAL

Jo Anne Shatkin of Vireo Advisors and Jack Miller of Market-Intell and RISI, each presented their analysis of the market potential for nanocellulose. Both used a similar methodology, estimating the size of potential markets, the potential loading of CNF or CNC, and the rate of market penetration. Shatkin segmented the market more finely, and explored high volume applications like cement and coatings with penetration rates of up to75% and global market potential of up to 56.5 million tonnes. Low volume applications add another 2 million tonnes. Miller was more conservative, estimating global potential of 23.6 million tonnes, but assuming only 5% market penetration.

Both of these analyses reported potential rather than a forecast for a time frame. Further research and development in process, material properties and applications will be needed, as is funding for this research. Ultimately, this funding must come from customers who see a sound business case. For CNF, this may be straightforward, as most near-term CNF will be produced on site at the paper mill that uses it. For CNC, this will be more complex, involving a supply chain involving material suppliers, processors and end users, e.g., paint company and auto manufacturer, or polymer supplier, packaging converter, and brand owner. Miller provided the following forecast:


Source: RISI: Nanocellulose: Technology Applications, and Markets

Jack Miller is Principal Consultant, Market-Intell LLC and Associate Consultant RISI. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

 

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