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Brighter days forecast for CelluForce

By Graeme Rodden

Note: This article is provided to Ahead of the Curve readers as an advance preview of the May/June issue of Paper360°, which mails later this week.

Inside the one-metric ton/day plant.

Born amid great promise in August 2010 as a joint venture between Domtar and FPInnovations, the one-metric ton/day CelluForce demonstration plant started up in 2012 producing nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). Situated by Domtar’s Windsor, QC, mill, CelluForce CEO Sebastien Corbeil likened the initial business strategy to the movie Field of Dreams: Build it and they will come.

Except that they didn’t. Still, Corbeil, said, “The fact we had the plant and worked on the process and had product available is helping us today.”

Although there was interest in NCC after startup, no significant partner could be found. Corbeil called the period between 2013 and 2015 “the Valley of Death” for CelluForce. He added that initially there was pressure to produce when “maybe we should have looked at the process more.” The plant ceased operations for a while, but CelluForce continued to look at potential applications as well as seeking additional funding.

An introduction of a new material takes time—more so than for a new aircraft design, for example, Corbeil noted. Why does it take so long? It can be value proposition-related: risk for clients; fine targeting, the need to be very specific; or even the “Utopian illusion”—there is never a 100% match. It may also be value chain-related: the cost of disruption (i.e., existing players will challenge the newcomer); a lack of drop-in solution; and the effect on the value chain.

In 2015, the significant breakthrough came when Schlumberger, the largest oil well service company in the world, invested. It will explore the use of NCC in improving the productivity of oil and gas wells. From the lessons learned, Corbeil said that CelluForce now has a lean startup model. For each potential application, a lot of research is carried out with numerous iterations with potential clients.

CelluForce will focus on six priority markets: upstream oil and gas, adhesives (with one commercial application already), pulp and paper (a new wet end chemical application), cement, paints and coatings (with a possible partner in Europe), and resins and rubbers.

CelluForce is doing concurrent product development—“adding a commercial readiness to go along with our technical readiness,” Corbeil said. There is an extended network of partners (universities, institutions) to perform targeted research. CelluForce also has joint development agreements with industrial partners for the development of potential applications. The quest persists for a perfect industrial collaboration, Corbeil said. The best are “early adopters” who are forward looking and who want innovative solutions to significant productivity issues. CelluForce receives several requests for samples weekly.

Competition can be an issue. As Corbeil said, more “actors” mean more choices for customers, something that is needed for the market to grow. There are other nascent cellulosic material producers as well as incumbent additive manufacturers. Yet for CelluForce, the focus is on growth. New production is planned for 2017. Improvements are being made to the process to increase efficiency, reduce production costs and ensure safety of supply. Currently, there is enough inventory to supply sales until mid-2017.

“We are part of a new stream of products,” Corbeil said, mentioning things such as cellulose nanocrystals, cellulose nanofibers, cellulose filaments and lignin. He added that this year will be pivotal, with three applications going to the commercial stage. The medium-term objective is to sell the plant’s full capacity, 300 metric tons/yr, by 2018. CelluForce is now finalizing the design of a larger commercial plant for 2018. “We will be ready to construct when the demand is there.”

Graeme Rodden is senior editor, North and South America, for Paper360°. Reach him at [email protected]

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