Tiny crystals could be a boon to paper and pulp industry

2014-02-02 Ashley Bach

Who knew that nanocrystals could be so important to the paper industry?

Cellulose nanocrystals, a microscopic material produced by processing wood pulp, are at the forefront of what the U.S. National Science Foundation says could become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

The crystals are stronger than stainless steel, carbon fiber or kevlar. And they're incredibly plentiful in wood and cheap to produce.

"The beauty of this material is that it is so abundant we don't have to make it," says (Jeff Youngblood of the Purdue University NanoForestry Institute). "We don't even have to use entire trees; nanocellulose is only 200 nanometres long. If we wanted we could use twigs and branches or even sawdust. We are turning waste into gold."

The U.S. Forest Service in 2012 opened a $1.7 million pilot plant in Wisconsin to produce the nanocrystals. Here's how New Scientist described the material's possible innovations:

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which is produced by processing wood pulp, is being hailed as the latest wonder material. Japan-based Pioneer Electronics is applying it to the next generation of flexible electronic displays. IBM is using it to create components for computers. Even the US army is getting in on the act, using it to make lightweight body armour and ballistic glass...

Theodore Wegner, assistant director of the (Wisconsin) factory, says it will be producing NCC on a large scale. It will be sold at just several dollars a kilogram within a couple of years. He says it has taken this long to unlock the potential of NCC because the technology to explore its properties, such as electron scanning microscopes, only emerged in the last decade or so.

NCC will replace metal and plastic car parts and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future, says Phil Jones, director of new ventures and disruptive technologies at the French mineral processing company IMERYS. "Anyone who makes a car or a plastic bag will want to get in on this," he says.

The discovery of crystals' amazing properties should also be a boon to paper and pulp companies, which are already processing pulp, according to the new U.S. Forest Service plant and Purdue University, which just released new research on the crystals.

"Some of the byproducts of the paper industry now go to making biofuels, so we could just add another process to use the leftover cellulose to make a composite material," said (U.S. Forest Service researcher Robert Moon). "The cellulose crystals are more difficult to break down into sugars to make liquid fuel. So let's make a product out of it, building on the existing infrastructure of the pulp and paper industry."