Images of the accumulation of plastic waste adversely impacting the environment, wildlife and humans have gone viral across media. The message is clear: change is necessary.
This is not new information to research organizations like FPInnovations that began to contribute to the building of a new bioeconomy years ago. In fact, FPInnovations, in conjunction with its member companies, was instrumental in moving the forest industry to the forefront of bioproducts research, which has had the added bonus of finding new avenues for pulp, helping to restore and sustain the industry.
A Platform for Sustainable Development
Wadood Hamad, Science Manager – Transformation and Interfaces Group, is one trailblazer whose specialization lies in the characterization of bio-based materials and chemicals extracted from forest material, such as cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) and filaments (CFs). The goal of Wadood and his team's advanced research is to develop high-technology applications that are cost-effective, environmentally-friendly and functional. The team focuses on producing sustainable and innovative solutions in flexible organic electronics, photonics, emulsions, gels, foams, and nanocomposites for a multitude of industrial, construction, medical, and consumer products. "Our overarching vision is to develop the nuts and bolts for the bioeconomy and create the infrastructure where materials will be sustainable and environmentally friendly," explains Wadood. "It's not realistic to replace all the plastic and petrochemicals in the world in one step, but instead we aim to understand and develop more useful and ecofriendly, biobased materials and chemicals that can cohabit with them and sometimes replace them."
Research and development of cellulose nanomaterials began in Canada more than two decades ago, with Paprican, one of the three research institutes that formed FPInnovations. FPInnovations' overall bioproducts research programs, headed by Éric Olivier, Senior Director of the Bioproducts research team, aim to create new high-value products for emerging natural and renewable markets and also integrate these products into applications for "non-traditional" sectors for forest–based materials and chemicals. The Transformation and Interfaces team devotes much of its efforts to cutting-edge research on CNCs and CFs. CNCs may be regarded as the primary structural building blocks of trees and other plants and can be economically extracted from wood fibres using chemical processes, whereas CFs are extracted using mechanical processes, and have complementary attributes.
As such, CNCs are an abundant, renewable nanomaterial possessing unique properties (e.g., self-assembly and photonic properties). Their unique properties also make them an attractive organic, functional material. For example, CNCs, with other suitable organic materials, allow the creation of flexible photonic or electronic films that can have tunable and controllable functional attributes. It is now possible to develop flexible screens for television and smart phones from organic materials, and in due course, using cellulose nanocrystals.
With the team's success in developing CNCs and scaling it up for potential commercial use, the material has grown from a research curiosity to intense research, development and implementation activities, garnering world-wide attention and acceptance and fostering serious discussions around transforming the current economy.
Worldwide CNC Activity
In Canada, CelluForce, Inc. is the world leader in the (pre)commercial production of cellulose nanocrystals, CelluForce NCCTM, and operates the world's largest CNC plant. A joint venture between Domtar Corporation, Schlumberger, Fibria, and FPInnovations, CelluForce Inc. has access to a strong R&D network to support the development of applications and products. More evidence of the growth of CNCs is the presence of additional pilot plants in North America from other research labs and universities. Internationally, there has been significant interest from both industry and academia. Cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) are being produced and used in products developed in Japan and billions of dollars have been invested by academia in Finland and a wide variety of European industries to develop an ambitious nanocellulose R&D program.
With the rapidly progressive development towards higher levels of integration and better performance, the electronics industry poses a real challenge as constant innovation is demanded. The advances in nanomaterials have led to a disruptive evolution in nearly all electronic products such as displays, lighting, power sources, sensors, and integrated smart systems-in-foil. Organic technology is versatile enough to be used in a wide range of new applications particularly with its ability to be flexible, transparent and manufactured at low costs. Although there is still much research and development that need to be done, organic electronics are posed to change the landscape of the market and will continue to do so as the depth and scope of research increase.
Shifting the Mindset
FPInnovations will continue its mission to help transform forestry-based materials and chemicals towards everyday products through its research on how biochemicals and biomaterials can be integrated into new applications, their interaction with other components, and their environmental and health impacts. These are serious and systematic efforts towards establishing the bioeconomy for the 21st century. In the meantime, we are slowly witnessing a shift in the mindset of businesses and materials providers from commodity to high-value and lower volume products. Pulp mills have a serious interest in, and see the value of, having applications beyond their traditional scope of production with bioproducts containing CNCs, CFs and other biomaterials, but a full transition still requires the engagement of companies further down the supply chain. Novel developments in manufacturing, collaboration with private sector and academia will all help provide a holistic solution to sustainable living; all areas in which FPInnovations and its partners are continuously developing. Wadood Hamad reminds us that, "The prospects are great, but time and brain power are still needed to make better products and smarter materials that cause less damage to the environment."