Can nanocellulose go commercial? It already is


Sean Ireland, manager of New Technologies and Market Ventures, Verso Paper
Sean Ireland, manager of New Technologies and Market Ventures, Verso Paper

Sean Ireland started his presentation at the MFPC annual meeting with a video because the first challenge in talking about nanotechnology is getting people to think, “Ah, I know what we’re talking about now.'”

Then he asked, “Before you saw that video, how many people in here knew that we could make stronger than steel materials out of trees and had heard of nanocellulose and nanotechnology specifically inside of your industry?”

Almost every hand went up. “Wow!” Ireland said, “Way more than I thought. That’s pretty cool.”

Ireland, the manager of New Technologies and Market Ventures for Verso Paper, works closely with the University of Maine’s Process Development Center (PDC), which is at the forefront of U.S. nanocellulose research and applications. Scandinavia, Japan and Canada lead the global industry, which is expected to total about $300 billion dollars by 2030.

“They’re very far ahead. They’ve been dumping hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years, hoping that we will not wake up,” Ireland said. “The beauty is that we’ve got a pretty large R&D engine in the United States and it’s woken up. So now we’re going to start playing really hard, playing catch-up.”

An important development in nanocellulose technology is that energy costs are coming down dramatically, he said, from almost 28 megawatts per ton, to 1.3. “Before you would have ended up with toilet paper that won’t rip, but you would have had to get a mortgage for your house to buy the roll,” Ireland said. “Now we’re down to something that’s a little more realistic to work with.”

There are numerous applications in various stages, including coatings that make the wood more impact resistant, more micro bio resistant and, when added to paint, more scuff resistant. In the paper industry, nanocellulose applications will improve the product and also lower costs.

” “It’s just pulp that’s been refined. It’s the same stuff we’ve had for thousands of years; we just didn’t realize what we could do with it,” he said. “In Bucksport we put in a plant and we’re using microfibrillated cellulose in their materials to actually enhance our products. We’re the first in the U.S. to do what we’re doing. For what we’re doing, we’re the first in the U.S. to do it.”

Another promising area is new composites – “really high-end stuff coming out” – that are “greener” than fiberglass and less expensive than carbon fiber. Researchers are even working on putting nanocellulose into cement.

“Holy Toledo! You can make concrete flex 30 percent and it gives you a 1000 percent increase in strength,” Ireland said. “Explain to me what that’s going to do to the world.”

But of all the ranges of applications – here now, here soon and here in the future – Ireland is most looking forward to an organic LED presentation on the back of a nanocellulose polymer film.

“Not next year but probably the year after, you’re going to start seeing applications where we’re not using a screen anymore and the actual wall paper is your screen,” he said. “So I just can’t wait until the day I turn the wall on and watch the Super Bowl. I think that Pioneer and Mitsubishi from Japan are going to be the ones that actually sell it to us. But I’m OK with that. We’ll come up with another one. But in the meantime I can turn on the wall and really, really see what’s going on.”

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