The strange world of super-strong, super-light nanocellulose

October 29, 2014 |

nanocellulose-1Flexible electric circuits and solar panels? Advanced biofuels? New concretes and steel-like materials? New medical implants and sutures? Drug delivery vehicles? Cosmetics? Lightweight armor?

That’s just a sample of the potential apps for nanocellulose and Borregaard is now investing in a 1000 tonne project in Sarpsborg, Norway. We investigate.

The news filtered out of Norway this week that the Borregaard will invest $34M (NOK 225 million) in a facility for the production of Exilva microfibrillar cellulose, that will be located at the Borregaard site in Sarpsborg. The commercial scale facility will have an initial design capacity of 1000 tonnes per year with a potential for expansion. Production is expected to start in the 3rd quarter of 2016.

Which is all exciting and great, if you know exactly what microfibrillar cellulose (MFC) is and does. If not, it’s even cooler — a great opportunity to find out all about this gel-like plastic that isn’t a plastic, that’s all wood fiber but isn’t. It might be the oddest, most interesting product you can make out of a forest, and displace products made from petrochemicals.

Borregaard's Exilva plant design

Borregaard’s Exilva plant design

What exactly, er, is nanocellulose?

It’s been described as “the Next World-Changing Supermaterial” in a Gizmodo piece that warned “Watch out, graphene” and described it as the “kevlar-strength, super-light, greenhouse gas-eating nanomaterial of the future.”

To give you an example of a nanocrystal-based material, there’s spider silk — self assembling, stronger than steel, yet completely flexible.

Nanocellulose — of which MFC is a major branch — well, it can act as a thickener, a gel, a biomaterial — for armor, bandages or glass.

As Wikipedia explains: “It is pseudo-plastic and exhibits the property of certain gels or fluids that are thick (viscous) under normal conditions, but flow (become thin, less viscous) over time when shaken, agitated, or otherwise stressed. This property is known as thixotropy.”

Why is nanocellulose a big deal?

As American Process CEO Theodora Retsina explained in the Digest last year:

“The market potential for nanocellulose is vast. The USDA estimates that the short-term market is over 34 million tons per year.  Nanocellulose can replace and/or complement plastics, oil and fracking drilling fluid, emulsifiers and has many other applications. It can be used to strengthen and reduce the weight of automotive components, contributing to overall vehicle fuel efficiency. And it is renewable, compostable, biocompatible and abundant.”

American Process should know. Using they AVAP front end, they developed a transformational way to produce low cost and very high crystallinity nanocellulose – both nanocrystals and nanofibrils. This new discovery has removed the cost barrier to nanocellulose applications. The result? Nanocellulose is now competitive in price and performance characteristics with fossil derived products.

Or as a team led by UT’s Malcolm Brown reported last year:

“Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar. Great strength, light weight and other advantages has fostered interest in using it in everything from lightweight armor and ballistic glass to wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation.”

Brown’s lab team reported an amazing breakthrough last year — what could be a scalable process to make nanocellulose using sunlight and water via genetically-enhanced cyanobacteria, borrowing genes from Acetobacter xylinum — a bacterium best known for making vinegar, but also for secreting nanocellulose.

Applications

Georgia Tech’s Art Ragauskas highlighted some of nanocellulose’s applications here:

• Polymer Composites & bioplastics
• Films, foams, and gels
• Cosmetics
• Advanced biofuels
• Dimensionally stable thickener and emulsion
• Implant material, biodegradable tissue scaffold
• Suture, drug delivery vehicle,
• Filter paper, speaker membrane
• Concrete
• Drilling muds & enhanced oil recovery
• Water treatment
• Electronics – flexible circuits
• Flexible solar panels
• Paints pigments and inks
• Screens and coatings

The market

Last year, Research and Markets reported in “The Global Market for Nanocellulose to 2017″ that pplications in polymer reinforcement and anti-microbial films will be hitting the market soon – and projected the overall market to be worth $250 million in North America by 2020. A number of manufacturing facilities have or are being built that will increase production to upwards of multiple tons per day. Production has increased by 1000% in two years and will likely increase by a further 500% at least by 2017.

Borregaard’s background in MFC

Borregaard’s project to develop MFC started in 2005, and the R&D work has partly been carried out in a pilot plant. The development work has taken place in close cooperation with potential customers.  The raw material, specialty cellulose, is split into a complex network of fibrils with the use of proprietary technology developed as part of the project. Exilva MFC has a unique set of characteristics, including rheology modification, stabilisation, texture modification and water retention. It can therefore find its way into valuable and novel applications in a variety of products such as adhesives, detergents, cosmetics, composites and other industrial formulations.

“Borregaard is well positioned to develop microfibrillar cellulose. The company has a broad experience in the production of bio-chemicals based on natural raw materials, a strong competence base within R&D for specialty products, and a global marketing organisation directed towards customers in the chemical industry. If successful, this project has the potential to become a new and exciting business area for Borregaard”, says President and CEO Per A. Sørlie.

More about Borregaard and its Advanced Bioeconomy projects

In January, we reported that Borregaard received a commitment for $3.01 million in support from the Research Council of Norway (NFR). The funds will be used for two different innovation projects based on biomass as a raw material.$1.73 million has been awarded to the “Green Binder” project, which is a collaboration project between Elkem and Borregaard where the goal is to develop bio-based binding agents for carbon products. This project has also received support from Innovation Norway to the tune of $0.43 million.

In addition, $1.28 million has been awarded to the “High Purity Cellulose” project, which aims to develop a process to produce specialty cellulose qualities for use in advanced chemicals. Innovation Norway is also supporting this project with NOK 7.3 million.

In April 2013, Norwegian Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen officially inaugurated the Borregaard biorefinery demonstration plant in Sarpsborg, which will produce green chemicals and sugars based on biomass from wood and agricultural and forestry waste.

The demonstration plant, called Biorefinery Demo, started preliminary operations in summer 2012, followed by normal operations in the 1st quarter of 2013. The plant relies on Borregaard’s proprietary BALI technology which converts cellulose fibres to sugars that can be used for the production of second generation bioethanol, while other components of the biomass (lignin) become advanced biochemicals.

Cost of the demonstration plant was just under $24.4M (NOK 140 million), including $10.1M (NOK 58 million) from Innovation Norway’s Environmental Technology Support Scheme.

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