Most pulp and paper industry professionals have heard about the benefits offered by nano-scale bioproducts—which include microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), cellulose nano-crystals (CNC), and cellulose nano-fibers (CNF). Used as an additive or in composites, nanocellulose is nontoxic, imparts superior strength, is lightweight, and can be made using abundant and renewable raw materials.
“Why, then, hasn’t the industry grown further, faster?” asks Jack Miller, founder and principal consultant, Biobased Markets, in his guest editorial in the May 2019 issue of TAPPI Journal. “The reality is that new advanced materials take a long time to emerge. Plastics, for example, were around for more than 50 years before they became widely accepted…nanocellulose is on a similar track. Much progress has been made, but challenges remain, both technical and commercial.”
To address these challenges, more than 400 professionals gathered in Chiba, Japan, this past June for the TAPPI 2019 International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials (TAPPI Nano). For the first time, the conference was co-located with the Nanocellulose Forum (NCF), an organization that works to accelerate nanocellulose-related business throughout Japan. This unique partnership brought new market opportunities to the forefront of the TAPPI Nano program.
Event co-chair Professor Akira Isogai, University of Tokyo, says now is the perfect time for nanocellulose products to take off. “I think if we had developed the CNF 20 years ago, no company would be interested,” he told Paper360° in Chiba. “At this moment, though, the situation for pulp and paper is not the same. Printing and writing grades are performing badly, which is why Japanese pulp and paper companies are trying to change their enterprise from conventional pulp and paper to more advanced biorefineries, which have the ability to produce both energy and cellulose. For that cellulose, they are seriously seeking next-generation products like CNF.”
In addition, public sentiment against oil-based plastics has reached an all-time high, which is creating strong demand for products that can replace them. “It’s a good opportunity for us,” said Isogai.
The conference kicked off with a series of keynote presentations illuminating the state of the nanocellulose industry in regions around the world and factors impacting each region’s progress. Important points from these regional keynote presentations include:
Canada (Dr. Emily Cranston, University of British Columbia): Because 35 percent of Canada is forestland, it’s not surprising that its nanocellulose industry has advanced rapidly—“We need to make people more aware of high-tech, bio-based products from the forest industry,” said Cranston. Canada has several nanocellulose producers across the country using a variety of feedstock at varying scales. “Having different suppliers is important for market growth,” said Cranston. “As Canadians, we like to work collaboratively, but are aiming to develop markets globally.” New market spotlight: Kruger Biomaterials’ commercial plant in Trois-Rivières has a production capacity of up to 6,000 metric tpy of FiloCell cellulose filaments, which are used to increase wet and dry strength in paper products—key parameters for new market applications.
China (Professor Yong Huang, Chinese Academy of Sciences): According to Huang, the number of nanocellulose patent filings in China has skyrocketed over the past 5-10 years. While much of China’s nanocellulosics industry is still in the research stage, the industry’s growth is outpacing the rest of the world. New market spotlight: Much of China’s research activity is in biomedical markets; at South China University of Technology, for instance, researchers are exploring 3D printing of nanocellulose for tissue engineering applications.
Europe (Heli Kangas, VTT Technical Research Center): Single-use plastics are a topic of major concern in Europe, so market opportunities here are expected to cluster around replacing plastics with biomaterials. Cotton is also of rapidly growing concern, Kangas reports, due to resource intensity; this also offers a huge potential for replacement with more sustainable biomaterials. New market spotlight: UPM’s FibDex is the first wound dressing made from wood-based nanofibrillar cellulose to receive regulatory approval.
Japan (Professor Akira Isogai, University of Tokyo): Robust government funding has given Japan a strong, well-developed nanotechnology industry with commercial production facilities already operating across the country. Also, ambitious national targets for reducing CO2 emissions make cellulosics particularly attractive. Isogai described a strong relationship between nanocellulose R&D and sustainable development goals. New market spotlight: Hokuetsu is using “spider-like network structures of CNF cryogel” to make high-performance air filters. In addition, research has shown that cellulose nanofiber/Prussian blue composites are highly water tolerant, and can be powerful adsorbents for radioactive cesium ions; field studies of soil and seawater decontamination in Fukushima, site of the 2011 nuclear disaster, have shown good results.
US (Dr. Alan Rudie, USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Lab): According to Rudie, the US nanotech program is not very large, but is making significant progress on several large scale applications, including the use of nanocellulose in concrete, fiberglass, and wet-formed particleboard. “In the US, there is need for products that can grab the attention of larger companies and generate more corporate research activity,” he said. New market spotlight: University of Maine researchers are using nanocellulose materials to create conduits used to speed nerve regeneration. U Maine reports that more than 20 million people in the US have peripheral nerve injuries, illustrating the potential size of this market.
SPOTLIGHT ON AUTOMOTIVE
A full schedule of technical sessions gave TAPPI Nano attendees from around the world the chance to focus their time on specific areas. Of particular interest was a session on the market for automotive manufacturing.
Used extensively in automotive parts, polymer composites represent huge market potential. Adding CNF not only reduces plastic use, but improves bending strength and bending modulus, helps retain fiber length during recycling, and can reduce weight—all valuable parameters in automotive parts manufacturing, noted panelist Takashi Semba of Virginia Tech. “Lately in the plastics industry I hear only bad news—the effects of greenhouse gases, micro plastics problems, and so on. I hope manufacturers will use more CNF polymer composites to help solve these problems.”
Panelist Hiroyuki Yano, Kyoto University, notes that, while the cost of producing CNF is still a challenge, it’s clear we’ve reached a limit with fossil fuels. “The plastics market is already so big—if we can replace only five percent of this 300 million ton market with US$8/kg CNF, it generates a US$120 billion market,” he noted. “If we are going to survive the 21st Century, we need to use nanocellulose materials.”
Other TAPPI Nano sessions explored the market potential for cellulose use in flexible bio-electrics, cosmetics, cement, and even edible food packaging. A poster session illuminated further research and application trials.
Attendees at TAPPI Nano also had access to the Nanocellulose Exhibition, featuring some of the newest technologies and applications from leaders in nanocellulose research and development. In addition to displays of new products, exhibit highlights included mass production, application research, production machinery, and analytical instruments.
Japan is already working to forge partnerships between its robust nanocellulose industry and nano-research in Finland, which is 75 percent forested and already has a thriving forest-products industry and ambitious environmental performance goals—the right climate for support of new markets for cellulose products. This makes Helsinki the perfect location for TAPPI Nano 2020, which will be held June 8-10 at the Scandic Marina Congress Center.
In a final-day keynote at the Chiba conference, presenters including Orlando Rojas, Aalto University, called forest products “the materials of the future” and discussed Finland’s research advancements in fundamentals, processing, and applications. “This is just an example of what we can do,” he said. “We’d like to see it expand on a global scale.”
Learn more about TAPPI’s International Nanotechnology Division, and TAPPI Nano conferences, at www.tappinano.org.
Fiber Flow Is A Challenge For New Markets
While traditional pulp and paper products are made on the paper machine with two-dimensional (2D) formation, the real challenges and opportunities are in three-dimensional (3D) products. Fibers are flowing in the cross and machine direction (x and y ) during paper machine formation. During 3D (x, y, and z) formation, the control of the fibers in the z direction against gravity becomes a serious challenge during the molding process.
For example, thin-wall thermoformed package products for clam-shell and carry out food containers (which represent a significant opportunity for plastics replacement) require the strength in the hinge area to allow users to open and close them multiple times. Managing the fiber flow to reinforce the hinge strength is a challenge.
Now compostable pulp fiber composites for auto parts, which are used for weight reduction and impact resistance, are a new market opportunity for the paper industry. Most polymers used for plastic molding have a glass transition temperature to allow liquid to flow into the mold at higher temperature and solidify after pressing followed by cooling. Pulp fiber slurry does not have glass transition temperature like polymers.
Consequently, new formulation innovations are needed to improve pulp fiber slurry to allow its flow behavior at higher temperature into the mold and become solidified after pressing and cooling.
Once we’ve achieved the above breakthroughs, the new market opportunities are very substantial. Examples include:
• Food industries: containers, cups, bowls, plates, trays, bottled products, coffee lids
• Medical disposables: urine bottles, bedpans, curved TV screen, insulation containers
• Engineered packaging: electronics, cell phones, TV, modems, DVD, auto parts
Dr. Jeff Hsieh has served as director of the Georgia Tech Pulp and Paper Engineering Multidisciplinary Certificate Program for 30 years, where he is now emeritus professor. He has been a TAPPI Fellow since 1995.
PlasticsToBio Concept Aims to Replace ‘Fossil-based’ With ‘Bio-based’
Plastics production is set to grow from current levels of around 400 million tpy to 1 billion tpy in only 30 years if no measures are taken. Pöyry, an international consulting and engineering company that serves the pulp and paper and biorefining industries, is ready to help companies harness the value of recycled plastics and bio-based feedstock.
Pöyry has developed a PlasticsToBio concept and initiative to address the global plastics problem, providing an affordable, economically viable way to decouple plastics from fossil-based materials. The concept looks at the whole value chain, from material suppliers to consumers, and demonstrates that there is a lucrative business case for replacing fossil plastics with bio-based plastics.
“Societies, companies and consumers recognize the magnitude of the plastics problem. Solutions to replace fossil plastics, including recycling, are in constant development, but so far there has not been a systemic concept to drive decoupling plastics from fossil-based materials. Neither has increasing plastics recycling in a large enough scale been developed in an affordable, economically viable, and sustainable manner,” says Tomi Nyman, principal, Pöyry’s Management Consulting Business Group. “Pöyry’s PlasticsToBio concept shows that, within only 10 years, most fossil-based plastics could be replaced with bio-based materials.”
The concept is based on two key areas: a substantial increase in recycling, and the gradual replacing of fossil feedstock with bio-based feedstock in plastics production. An important tool in this implementation is developing a global deposit plan for plastics collection and recycling. Similar programs are already in use in various countries, either on the national or retail chain level.
A partnership and value chain is set up between the retailers and recyclers. When a consumer buys a product from a store, a small deposit value is charged to the consumer for the packaging. When returning the used packaging to the shop, the consumer receives the deposit value back; this amount of money can then be discounted from the next purchase in the same store. The returned plastic packaging is then regularly collected, transported, and sorted for recycling and material reuse.
“There are, naturally, investments needed to make this change happen. For example, we will need recycling sites, waste management, and new infrastructure for collection, sorting, and logistics. Pöyry’s concept shows that the investments needed to introduce this idea and eventually use solely bio-based plastics will become cheaper than sourcing crude oil today to produce fossil-based plastics,” Nyman summarizes.