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April 29, 2013

UMaine project unlocks nanofiber potential

PHOTo / Jason P. Smith Mike Bilodeau, director of the University of Maine's Process Development Center in Orono, oversees the center's Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant, where cellulose nanofibers are extracted from wood and tested for commercial applications such as food additives and auto parts materials.

John Wolanski, vice president of sales and marketing at GAC Chemical in Searsport, remembers clearly the epiphany he had upon hearing Gov. Angus King proclaim in the 1990s, “Let no fish leave the state of Maine with its head on.” He realized that adding value to the trees coming out of Maine's North Woods — beyond transforming them into pulp or paper — could be as much a boon to the paper industry as King's vision would be to fishermen and seafood processors along the coast.

Fifteen years later, Wolanski stood at center stage at the University of Maine's Wells Conference Center in Orono in early April. Recalling the “no fish” proclamation in his introduction of Maine's junior U.S. senator as the keynote speaker of the UMaine Pulp and Paper Foundation's annual Paper Days event, he told King his value-added mantra had taken root in the paper industry as well.

Exhibit A, unveiled that very day at UMaine's Process Development Center in Orono, is the nation's first Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant. Funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the new facility can produce up to one ton per day of cellulose nanofiber, a material derived from wood chips with commercial potential as a component in foods, composites, transparent flexible films and a wide range of other products.

As the only facility in the country capable of producing cellulose nanofiber on that scale, the pilot plant is well-positioned to provide the quantities needed by researchers and companies testing and evaluating its commercial potential, which the U.S. Forest Service estimates could contribute $600 billion to the U.S economy by 2020.

“Whether it's fish from the ocean or logs hauled out of the Maine woods, the key is adding value to those natural resources,” says Wolanski, past president and newly elected chairman of the UMaine Pulp and Paper Foundation. “The driver in all of this is innovation … the innovation of taking trees one step further and transforming them into biofuels and bio-plastics. What a great vision! We're no longer talking simply about Maine trees making pulp and paper, newsprint and tissue. We're talking about new types of paper, using all kinds of specialty fibers. We're talking about using science to create nano-cellulose fiber and adding incredible value to the [wood-based] product.”

Wolanski says the research being done at the University of Maine is helping to revitalize the state's paper industry, which in the last decade has seen layoffs and changes in ownership at several mills in response to declining markets for paper. He says those efforts are being noticed elsewhere, citing this year's record Paper Days attendance of almost 400 paper industry professionals, including “at least a dozen CEOs” and attendees from Finland and Mexico.

“The paper industry is reinventing itself — we're making chemicals from paper wastes, fuels from paper wastes — and the University of Maine is really helping to lead the way,” he says. “We had chemical suppliers flying in from Texas, Georgia and California wanting to learn more about how this industry is reinventing itself. This isn't just about 'pulp' and 'paper' anymore.”

Scaling up to commercial viability

Cellulose, a long string of sugar molecules that is the main component of plant cell walls, is what gives wood its remarkable strength. It is the basic building block for paper and many textiles. Its versatility, in both its chemical and physical properties, is what makes it attractive as a potential raw material for everyday products.

Maine has 17 million acres of trees, the primary source of cellulose. Maine's paper companies are among the businesses interested in how cellulose nanofibers — a core constituent of cellulose — might be used to make new paper products that are stronger, or have different attributes, than the newsprint or coated stocks that have been their mainstay products. But research, no matter how promising, takes time and money away from the core products paper companies need to focus on to stay in business.

That's where UMaine's Process Development Center — and its sister facility, the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, which opened a research center last summer in Old Town to study making biofuels and plastics from plant materials — comes into the picture.

“They find it very cost effective to rent time on our equipment [to do research],” says Michael Bilodeau, who's been director of the Process Development Center for 10 years. It's a self-funding operation with revenues derived from research and industrial partnerships paying the salaries of 13 employees and a $1 million annual operating budget. In 2012, five U.S. patents were issued to the center, another source of potential revenue.

Bilodeau says the new Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant capitalizes on a decade of research pointing to the vast potential for using nanomaterials as components in automobiles, paint and coating additives, composites, filtration devices and new high-value types of paper. Until now, the center could make only 300 pounds of cellulose nanofiber per day – not enough to meet the growing demand from researchers (including six other universities) and businesses that now want to scale up and test the commercial viability of their prototype products or processes.

“We're beyond the phase of wondering if this will be commercially viable,” Bilodeau says. “There are a growing number of products that contain this material.”

The center's new cellulose nanofiber machine transforms pulp — the ground-up wood used in making paper — into slurries that can be delivered in liquid or dry form in quantities ranging from one-gallon containers to drums or industrial totes delivered by truck. Bilodeau says the machine runs as needed, and is capable of producing one ton of material per day.

The cellulose nanofiber made at the center is sold at cost.

“One of our objectives is to get this into as many applications as possible,” Bilodeau says, explaining that doing so increases the odds that some of those products being tested by the center's industrial and research partners will take off. Scaling up, he says, typically is the next step in the research and development continuum before a prototype product or raw material achieves the critical mass that makes it commercially viable. At that point, he says, the center has done its job and passes the baton to the partner companies that are ready for wide-scale production.

Picking up on Wolanski's variation of King's “no fish with its head on” mantra, Bilodeau says Maine's paper industry now sees pulp as a commodity with value beyond being the raw material for making paper. If cellulose nanofiber takes off as he expects, Bilodeau says it will increase the value of Maine's vast forests and help paper companies develop higher-value specialty papers.

“We have some very unique equipment here, some very talented staff,” he says. “We have a lot of repeat and new customers … Some of them are pursuing market opportunities utilizing bio-based sustainable materials.”

R&D continuum

Jake Ward, UMaine's vice president of innovation and economic development, says the university has had a century-long partnership with the forest products industry in Maine — ranging from research on sustainable management of forests to using wood biomass to create biofuel.

Comparable R&D work, he says, is being done with partners in the composites, aquaculture, agriculture, environmental and information technology, precision manufacturing and biotechnology industries. The “innovation continuum,” Ward says, begins with basic and applied research that often taps federal grants for funding. It moves on to development and commercialization projects that typically tap seed money, federal loans and angel investors for funding. The final stage occurs when a product or process becomes a viable business venture whose success or failure will be dictated by the marketplace.

The “bridge in a backpack,” a composites bridge technology developed by the university, is an example of innovation eventually becoming commercially viable. Developed by UMaine's AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center, the technology was licensed to an Orono startup called Advanced Infrastructure Technology, which has used it to build bridges in Maine and other states.

Ward says the R&D being done at the Process Development Center and the Forest Bio-Products Research Institute reflects a realization in the early 2000s by Maine's pulp and paper industry that its future might rest on how well it answered two questions:

  • How to maximize the value of a piece of wood?
  • How to maximize the environmental benefits of Maine's North Woods?

The new Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant, he says, offers a potential use — and a higher-value market — for all of the waste wood typically left on the forest floor after trees are harvested, since “nano-cellulose doesn't need big chunks of wood” for its creation. With its one-ton-per-day capacity, it effectively accelerates the opportunities for commercialization and large-scale development.

“Prior to this, there was not enough [cellulose nanofiber] to do serious product development,” Ward says, adding that breakthroughs on the processing side in the last 10 years have helped to reduce the cost of making the material enough to generate interest, and the need, to make more of it available for prospective commercial uses.

Importantly, he says, UMaine's longstanding partnerships with pulp, paper and chemical industries in Maine give all parties a tremendous edge in creating new products based on wood.

“We're fortunate in so many ways,” likening the vertical integration of Maine's forest products industries to the cluster of high-tech companies in California's Silicon Valley. “We've been a forest products and paper state for a long time. All of the infrastructure we have here — trucking, rail, surveyors, banks, service companies — they all understand forest products. That's all infrastructure we can build on. We don't have to start from scratch. Knowing the infrastructure we have, and taking advantage of it, is a critical part of what we do.”

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