May 29, 2016
Saturday Night Live bodybuilding characters Hans and Franz gained notoriety by concluding each segment with “we want to pump you up.” Canada’s pulp and paper industry has the same goal. Its latest performance enhancer is cellulose filaments (CF).
Many in the industry expect this new, minuscule biomaterial peeled from wood fibre will result in cheaper, stronger and novel pulp and paper products. Among its biggest selling points is that it is environmentally friendly and renewable. What has the industry excited about CF as a potentially new and novel biomaterial is that manufacturing the product uses a madein- Canada, patented, mechanical process that does not require messy and potentially harmful chemicals or enzymes.
This delivers yet another environmental dividend from CF. The estimated North American consumption market for CF is about 200,000 tonnes per year. CF is as a lightweight strengthening agent that can be peeled mechanically from wood fibre to the sub-micron level, and can strengthen the wet-web on a paper-making machine, reducing the potential for expensive web breakages.
It can also add strength to dry paper products such as tissue, towel, print, writing and specialty paper grades. With paper towels and facial tissues, CF also has the ability to improve absorption without sacrificing overall softness. Other wood product sectors can also benefit from CF. It can be added to wood panel products such as medium-density fibreboard to increase its strength. It will also work as a strength enhancer for many non-wood fibre products such as textiles.
The pulp and paper industry believes that adding CF, particularly in paper-making, could result in new categories of performance-enhanced products for different markets, something it is desperately seeking because of reduced consumption of traditional paper products resulting from the use of digital media devices. CF’s ability to work as a performance enhancer in non-traditional pulp and paper products is what encouraged the B.C. government to contribute $2.25 million to the more than $43 million spent over the past five years in research and development to commercialize CF.
Last year, pulp and paper manufacturer Kruger Biomaterials Inc. started up a $43.6-million, five-tonne-per-day CF demonstration plant. The federal government, through Natural Resources Canada and its Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, contributed $15 million toward the facility. Kruger also received additional financial support from the Quebec government and FPInnovations, which is Canada’s wood products research institute. The production facility is located at the company’s newsprint plant in Trois Rivieres, Que., and was built in collaboration with FPInnovations, the CF production technology developer.
“Large-scale production is well underway and we are confident that we can continue to provide premium-quality CF, which will help develop the market and find new commercial applications for this revolutionary biomaterial,” says Daniel Archambault, executive vice-president and COO, of the industrial products division at Kruger.
Kruger isn’t the only game in town. Western Canadian pulp producer Mercer International Inc., owner of a large northern bleached softwood kraft (NBSK) pulp mill in Celgar, B.C., has engaged in a rarity in the Canadian forest industry. It has entered into a joint venture to create a company called Performance BioFilaments with Eastern Canadian pulp producer Resolute Forest Products. It intends to produce and market commercial- scale volumes of CF. This announcement came within a week of production start-up at the Kruger CF plant. At the time of this announced joint venture in 2014, Mercer was the world’s largest NBSK market pulp producer.
Performance BioFilaments managing director Gurminder Minhas says the company is looking to identify joint development partners for novel product applications of CF to create new products within a range of industries — from automotive and manufacturing to construction and high-end consumer products. “I can foresee lighterweight, more fuel-efficient vehicles, stronger more flexible building materials,and advanced composite materials in the realm of possible applications,” says Minhas. “Cellulose filaments are literally unlocking the foundation of nature’s elements to make way for significant advancements in materials development.”
The key to CF production is the patented, mechanical process developed by FPInnovations. It uses easy-to-acquire components, at a relatively low capital cost, that can be installed within existing production processes. Both Kruger, producing a CF product under the brand name of Filocell, and Performance BioFilaments use the same FPInnovations technology.
Canada is not the only country pursuing the commercialization and application of CF, with the United States, China, Finland, Brazil and Sweden also engaged in research and development. Two years ago, when the construction of the Kruger demonstration plant was announced, FPInnovations stated that Canada had a “pole position” in the advancement of economical CF production. Whether that advantage still exists is unknown given the pace and race to bring CF to market. However, it is quite an accomplishment to bring new technology for a new biomaterial from lab bench to commercialization in just five years. The R&D work is not over yet.
For example, FPInnovations recently revealed it has been able to develop an effective method to achieve maximum dispersal when incorporated as a performance enhancer, “Indeed, it was found that because of their nature, the filaments tend to stick together and therefore lose their full strengthening potential,” said the organization. “Through lab work at FPInnovations and at the Kruger pilot plant, it has developed methods that, “efficiently disperse never-dried cellulose filaments.”
FPInnovations also noted it has developed a cost-effective method to transport CF to end users that involves incorporating filaments into a carrier pulp, followed by drying the wet mixture using conventional drying equipment at the delivery point.
About the author: Tony Kryzanowski writes a bout forestry, alternative energy, and natural sciences for a variety of national and international publications, and is headquartered in St. Albert, Alta.