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Interview with Theodora Retsina, CEO of American Process Inc.

(Editor's Note: The upcoming TAPPI International Nanotechnology Conference for Renewable Materials, June 22-25, 2015, kicks off with a tour of American Process Inc.'s Thomaston Biorefinery and New Demonstration Line. The following is an interview with API's CEO, Dr. Theodora Retsina.)

Q: What is the topic of your keynote speech at the upcoming TAPPI conference?

I’ll be talking about nanocellulose as an emerging advanced biomaterial as well as about American Process Inc. (API) and the unique materials we’re producing at our 100-ton per year demonstration plant in Thomaston GA.

Q: Tell us more about API.

I started the company in 1995 as an engineering consulting company in the forest products industry. In 2006, we began work on biomass-derived sugar technology and we are now a leading company in the field of commercial production of sugars and ethanol from biomass with biorefineries in Alpena, Michigan, and Thomaston, Georgia. Most recently, we are working with nanocellulose. In 2012, we partnered with GranBio which is an investor in our company and leads our commercialization efforts.

Q: Why did you get into nanocellulose?

We’re in the business of elevating biomass to its full value—certainly for the profitability of our company but also for the benefit of society. Nanocellulose is a natural evolution from the biorefinery concept. We already produce several products from biomass: lignin, sugars, biofuel, cellulose and hemicellulose. Biomass is becoming more expensive and we need to use it for high value products.

We’ve explored opportunities with hundreds of companies and are already actively working with many of them. Our nanocellulose demonstration plant in Thomaston started up on time, on budget, in April, and we had pre-orders from customers on hand so that we could begin to ship this initial product right away. We have orders for all four of our products: hydrophilic BioPlus™ Crystals and BioPlus™ Fibrils, and our unique, hydrophobic lignin coated BioPlus-L™ Crystals and BioPlus-L™ Fibrils. Our material is available to anyone who wants to buy it, without a requirement for any sort of confidentiality agreement or joint development agreement. Of course, we’re happy to collaborate, if that’s what the customer wants.

Q: Tell us more about these four products?

As I mentioned, with our process we can produce both cellulose nanocrystals and nano fibrils, and we can produce both of these in either hydrophilic or hydrophobic varieties. Properties are equal to or better than other nanocellulose materials with high crystallinity, high purity and excellent thermal stability.

Nanocellulose is excellent as a rheology modifier and for reinforcement in polymer composites for lightweighting in transportation. We’re looking at these areas, plus applications with adhesives, cement, and many more.
 
Q: How is the market for nanocellulose developing?

There are three well known “grand challenges.” First, it has been a very expensive product, and we have significantly mitigated that with our low cost process. Second, the availability of material for market and product development has been limited. Until recently, only lab scale quantities were available. But American Process and a few others are changing that. Third, nanocellulose is naturally hydrophilic and difficult to disperse, and again, we have met that challenge.

We’re low cost in three ways. First, we start with low cost biomass. For any geographical region in the world we can utilize the lowest cost biomass available as a feedstock. Second, our process is a true biorefinery—we already have markets for the other products from the process: sugars, lignin, biofuels and biochemicals. Third, the chemistry is simple. Rather than sulfuric acid which is difficult to recycle, our biorefinery process uses sulfur dioxide which is easily recovered and recycled.
 
Q: How have you met the challenge with dispersibility?

There are actually two challenges with dispersibility. The first is that, like all nanomaterials, nanocellulose wants to agglomerate. When hydrophilic nanocellulose is dried, the particles irreversibly bond together through hydrogen bonding and cannot be re-dispersed. Our hydrophobic nanocellulose can be dried as individual particles and easily redispersed. Our hydrophobic BioPlus-L Fibrils and Crystals are available in both gel and spray dried powder forms. We’re working on a dispersible spray dried powder for our hydrophilic varieties, and we’re nearly there.

The second challenge is that conventional forms of nanocellulose are hydrophilic and do not disperse well in PLA (polylactic acid), polypropylene, or other hydrophobic polymers. There’s been a lot of research with surface modification to compatibilize nanocellulose, especially cellulose nanocrystals, with hydrophobic materials, but this has proven to be challenging and expensive. However, our lignin coated materials are readily dispersible in hydrophobic media, and the process is low cost and scalable. Next we—and by that I mean the industry, including our customers—have to develop the applications.

Q: What is the forecast for the nanocellulose industry, say five years out?

More companies are now taking the material from the lab to the market, but the industry is still just getting started. Any forecast at this stage is pure speculation, but if we are successful with lightweighting and some of the other benefits we expect to see, the market for nanocellulose could be larger than any of us imagine. As for American Process, together with GranBio we’re planning a next stage commercial-scale plant for 10,000 to 30,000 tons per year, in two to three years.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I mentioned the three grand challenges, but there is a fourth. Within the forest products industry, we need to expand our vision for end-use applications. Just like some companies produce pulp and others produce paper, companies that produce nanocellulose need to look at the full range of applications, not just those within our own industry. It’s good to see how developments with nanocellulose can help the pulp and paper industry, but it is also good to see the industry looking at applications beyond pulp and paper. The potential is immense.

This interview was conducted by Jack Miller, Founder and Principal Consultant, Market-Intell LLC, and author of Nanocellulose: Technology Applications and Markets, published in 2014. He also works with American Process, Inc. as Consulting Manager, Global Nanocellulose Sales.

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