CelluForce, a joint venture of Domtar and FPInnovations, has officially opened the world’s first demonstration-scale plant to produce nanocrystalline cellulose. On hand for the ceremony were (L to R) Pierre Lapointe, CEO of FPInnovations, Jean Moreau, CEO of CelluForce and John Williams, CEO of Domtar.
By Tyler Irving
Posted March 2012
In late January, CelluForce, a joint venture between Domtar Coporation and FPInnovations, officially opened the world's first demonstration-scale plant to produce nanocrystalline cellulose(NCC) in Windsor, Que.
For decades, chemists have known how to hydrolyse cellulose from wood pulp, using strong acids to destroy the amorphous regions and leave behind the crystalline ones. The nanocrystals produced seem to have endless benefits, including a tensile strength greater than steel and interesting optical properties. They are renewable, biodegradable and non-toxic and can be incorporated into a wide range of products, from paints to golf balls, to improve viscosity, strength and durability. But commercial application has been held back by the availability of the product. “Several years ago, we began discussions with potential clients,” says Richard Berry, vice-president and chief technology officer at CelluForce. “When we told them how much was available, we saw it was going to be impossible to go forward with any sort of pre-commercial trial so we had to scale up,” Berry says.
That meant designing a plant that could efficiently recycle the spent acids and provide both high yield and quality. It took several years and $36 million, most of it from the federal and provincial ministries of natural resources, but the results live up to expectations. The Windsor plant converts more than 50 per cent of the commercial pulp feedstock into NCC and total production can reach a tonne per day. “This mill will allow us to go into market trials in different sectors,” says Jean Moreau, president and CEO of CelluForce. “By closely watching those results, we aim to build a significant market that will allow us to justify new commercial plants,” Moreau says. CelluForce has already entered into 15 collaboration agreements with companies around the world. Moreau estimates that in three to five years the company will have one or more commercial plants and could be producing up to 10,000 tonnes of NCC a year.
Both Berry and Moreau are keenly aware of the implications commercial NCC has for Canada’s forest products industry, which has been pummelled by a number of catastrophes in the past decade. “We’re not the messiah,” says Moreau, “but NCC is a kind of hidden secret that the forest can bring to the market.” Berry agrees: “This is one of several elements in a toolbox. A bio-pathways approach will take us into the 21st century and enable us to do more with the forest than has ever been possible before.”
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