Keynoters from the upcoming TAPPI Nano conference discuss new developments in nanotechnology and the process of commercializing innovation.
With an ever-growing list of new nano-scale products and processes, and increasing interest in the untapped potential of sustainable nanocellulose materials, nanotechnology offers tremendous opportunity for the pulp and paper industry.
For insight into what’s new in this important arena, TAPPI spoke with two of the keynote speakers for the upcoming International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials (see sidebar). Both were interviewed for TAPPI by Jack Miller, founder and principal consultant, Market-Intell LLC.
Sebastien Corbeil is president and CEO, CelluForce, having joined CelluForce in April 2015. Corbeil has more than 20 years of international business experience; he holds an MBA from DePaul University and a M. Eng in Chemical Engineering from McGill University. CelluForce was founded in 2012 with the mission to commercialize cellulose nanocrystals. The current shareholders are Domtar, FPInnovations, Schlumberger, and Fibria.
As executive vice president at FPInnovations, Trevor Stuthridge oversees the organization’s research, business development, and strategy delivery. Stuthridge is a board member for the Institute of Forest Biosciences, Innoventures Canada, and holds adjunct professorships at the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto. FPInnovations was created as Canada’s forest sector innovation hub in 2007 through the merger of three leading forest sector research institutes: FERIC, Forintek, and Paprican. FPInnovations has a staff of more than 500, with main laboratories in Quebec City, Montreal, and Vancouver.
President and CEO,
TAPPI: Please tell us a little bit about CelluForce. You had some big news toward the end of last year, correct?
Corbeil: CelluForce was the first company to market cellulose nanocrystals under the CelluForce NCC trademark, and we remain the global leader in this field with a production capacity of 300 metric tons per year. We have a great team of people that has recently been expanded in sales and technical development.
Yes, our partnership with Fibria was indeed big news and we are very happy to have them on board as a strategic shareholder. Originally, CelluForce was a 50/50 joint venture between Domtar and FPInnovations. Schlumberger joined as an equity partner in March, 2015, and Fibria is the second company aside from the founders to invest in CelluForce.
What will be the focus of your keynote at TAPPI Nano?
I will be talking about key learnings in our nanocellulose commercialization journey and give an overview of where we are heading as a company. I feel 2017 will be a pivotal year for us, with new applications reaching commercial status. We’re seeing rising interest with a number of industrial players that have started trialing CelluForce NCC. I should be able to say a bit more about these during my speech in June.
What needs to be done to accelerate the growth in nanotechnology innovation?
We need more industrially-driven research. There’s a lot of good scientific research, but we need more applications development work focused on assessing and tailoring products to meet all industrial specifications. To do this, we need more industrial partners involved in applications development. I understand more users will be present at the 2017 TAPPI Nano conference. This is excellent news.
What is CelluForce doing to optimize production?
We have continued our R&D program to optimize our production process based on learnings from operating our Windsor plant. We are now ready to reinvest to upgrade some of the original equipment and make our process more efficient. Quality control and quality assurance remains essential since we are now shipping larger quantities to customers. While batch-to-batch reproducibility was never an issue for us, specifications can be quite different if you are selling in electronics as opposed to cement. We need to show our customers that our procedures are very strict and meet their requirements.
Any thoughts on the next-level plant? When will you be going to 30 tons per day, 50 tons per day, or more?
This is hard to forecast given the novelty of the material. We are actually focusing our attention on selling the capacity of our Windsor plant, which should be above 300 tpy after our upgrade. This makes it one of the largest plants in the world for nanomaterial—not only nanocellulose. We can do a lot with applications at less than 1 percent CNC loading to start with. The challenge will be to decide when to launch the construction of a new plant since we are working on applications that, alone, could require 2,000 to 3,000 metric tons per year.
We hear that one of the main challenges is recovery of sulfuric acid. Any comment on this?
Yes, improvement in the sulfuric acid recovery loop will be part of the Windsor upgrade. We have found a way to improve this as well.
What about dispersibility? Some have said they’ve found this to be more of a challenge than expected.
It is important to keep in mind that there are various grades of CNC available in the market; depending on the grade or the producer, you will have different level of dispersibility. CelluForce NCC is a grade that disperses well in aqueous applications because of our specific production steps; however, good dispersion in hydrophobic media is more difficult and a well-known challenge with nanocellulose in general. CelluForce has been making progress in this area.
Executive Vice President,
TAPPI: Can you tell us a little bit about FPInnovations’ history with nanocellulose?
Stuthridge: FPInnovations is a not-for-profit world leader in forest products research across the entire value chain. FPInnovations has a long history of innovation in the field of cellulose nanocrystals, or CNC, where we have maintained a world-leading research capacity and track record in commercialization. We hold an extensive patent portfolio regarding CNC production, modification and end-use application. In addition, we have invested significant resources in the broader area of advanced cellulosic materials, including nano-fibrils and cellulose filaments.
How does a non-profit membership organization like FPInnovations commercialize new technologies?
As a member-driven organization, our focus is to do innovative research that will facilitate business development and commercialization of new technologies like CNC and cellulose filaments by our industry stakeholders, rather than deploying them. Commercialization of these technologies is a complex process with many moving parts.
For us, it all starts in the laboratory. Once we have delivered successful laboratory results and secured the intellectual property, we are able to begin the first steps of scaling-up to ensure we reproduce what we found in the lab, gather the data necessary to calculate and de-risk the value proposition, and confirm the suite of applications best addressed by the material. We eventually get to a pilot- and demonstration-scale plant phase, which requires significant capital investment. We feel it is critical to engage with industry as early on as possible in this process. In parallel, we must also ensure we are aligned to any codes and standards relevant to the product or, in the case of an entirely new product line, work with regulators to begin defining those standards.
This structured approach increases the chances of developing a commercially viable technology or product. As one example, our first commercial venture in CNC was CelluForce (see Corbeil interview), which is a 50/50 joint venture with Domtar, an FPInnovations’ member. This has been a critical learning experience for FPInnovations and we are certainly seeing positive results from that joint venture today.
Please tell us about what FPInnovations is doing with cellulose filaments.
After positive results at our laboratory in Pointe-Claire, we were able to establish a strategic partnership with Kruger Biomaterials, working together to scale up the process to the demonstration plant level at their mill in Trois Rivieres, QC. Since then we have signed a second strategic partnership with Performance BioFilaments to develop commercial applications.
Kruger now has a commercial-scale production capacity and is producing and selling cellulose filaments under the Filocell trademark. Performance BioFilaments is making excellent progress on a number of application fronts.
What is the role of FPInnovations in these strategic partnerships?
In addition to developing and de-risking the underpinning technology platforms with partners within the traditional sector, FPInnovations has a key role in working with non-traditional partners—our customers’ customers, and even the end-users of our customers’ customers. End-user industries need to understand the capacity of these innovative materials to deliver value to them. We can play an important communications role here and, as an objective evaluator, demonstrate the advantages of the material in these application spaces.
For example, automotive companies and their suppliers may not appreciate the opportunities for leading-edge nano-cellulosics—such as a replacement with non-fossil oil-based content, lighter weight, strength improvements, and lower cost. In a best case scenario, this engagement occurs during the early development phase where the design cycle ensures we are placing emphasis on targeting the performance characteristics that would create a viable end-product.
What about intellectual property?
We continue to focus on creating unique and proprietary production technology and surrounding it with appropriate protection in the applications space. This helps us build a strong foundation for successful commercialization by our industry partners. If we are approaching this in the right way, we are able to build knowledge in any given high potential application space, like automotive or oil and gas, even if it is not a part of the industries we have historically served.
The CelluForce partnership with Schlumberger for oil and gas applications development is a good example. In March 2015, Schlumberger made an investment in CelluForce and became an equity partner along with FPInnovations and Domtar. Schlumberger and CelluForce are working together to explore the use of CelluForce NCC in oil and gas applications.
Can you tell us a bit more about your talk at TAPPI Nano in June?
It’s a big investment to go from lab-scale to pilot-scale to commercial-scale, and we try to minimize the risks along this pathway. The things I mentioned are part of that: optimizing production, creating and protecting intellectual property, and developing applications and partners in the application space. I’ll be focusing on the formal development process that we use to support this, including some of the innovation management tools we use to identify new concepts, prioritize innovation investment, and direct our research and its deployment.
I’ll also provide some application examples, including those that have “future-proofed” our traditional industries. For example, one of our Canadian mills was able to use these advanced fiber materials to improve the strength and customer satisfaction of one of its product lines, allowing them to run the production line with fewer shut-downs and meet new performance levels for their market product. This combination of factors has retained their competitiveness, extended the life of the mill and, arguably, saved 200 to 400 jobs.
Jack Miller is founder and principal consultant, Market-Intell LLC, and the author of Nanocellulose: Technology Applications and Markets, published by RISI in 2014. He has presented on nanocellulose in the US, Canada, Europe, and Brazil, and will present at TAPPI Nano 2017 in Montreal.
TAPPI Nano 2017
Now in its 12th year, TAPPI’s International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials provides a unique forum combining an exceptional technical program with networking opportunities for participants working in research, development, and deployment of renewable nanomaterials. The 2017 conference will be held June 5-8, 2017, at the Hyatt Regency Montreal in Montreal, QC. Keynote speakers will be Sebastien Corbeil and Trevor Stuthridge, interviewed here; plus John Kozij, assistant deputy minister, Canadian Forest Service. For program information, registration, and more, visit conference.tappinano.org
ABOVE: Poster session from the 2016 TAPPI Nano conference.
LEFT: Inside the CelluForce Windsor plant.
Cellulose nanocrystals, or CNC, in the laboratory. (Photo courtesy FPInnovations.)