BIOFOR 2019 - Biomaterials research advancement & innovation: Europe is way ahead of the game

Min Tan Ton-That, National Research Council and Session Leader, Heli Kangas, VTT, Finland, Sebastien Corbeil, CelluForce, Canada and Julien Bras, Grenoble Institute of Technology, France. © Paper Advance

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When it comes to research and innovation in advanced biomaterials, Europe is leading the way to the future.

This BIOFOR Panel session focused on the significant progress and contributions made in science and technology of bio-based materials and nanomaterials in the last decade. The panel also addressed the issues and challenges of entering new markets and a competitive time-to-market. How do you balance policy challenges while assisting the development of new markets for the forest industry at the same time?

According to Heli Kangas, Team Leader at VTT Research in Finland, research on nanocellulose dates back to 2008. Backed by the European Union, companies such as Stora Enso were able to launch pre-commercial production of nanocellulose in 201 1 and by that time, Stora Enso was positioned to back-up its Nanocellulose Centre with a manufacturing concept.

Since 2017, the Finnish industry has applied nanocellulose in a number of different ways, to textiles, electronic devices and optical structures, but the main focus remains packaging, such as the three-layer barrier film structure developed for the food industry.

“There will different drivers for biomaterials in the near future,” noted Kangas, including:

  1. The EU ban of single-use plastic. This creates a huge opportunity for the forest products industry;
  2. Consumers preference for green solutions;
  3. Bio-based materials and nanomaterials can be produced sustainably; and,
  4. Our product is biodegradable and compostable.

The challenges, (admittedly there are a few), include:

  1. The use of forests (felling trees has its limits);
  2. Recycling must be solved, since biodegradation is not a priority;
  3. The need for capital investment; and,
  4. Properties versus price: our cost has to be less than that of competing materials.

Finally, Kangas argued there is plenty of room to add production capacity at this time. “We can add 50% more capacity before 2050 without any negative environmental impact.”

The second speaker was Dr. Alain Bras, from the Grenoble Institute of Technology. Dr. Bras addressed two main subjects: the bioeconomy strategy from now until 2025, and the end of life and circularity component. His presentation demonstrated the Institute’s position as a leader in the field of nanomaterial research, having started its strategy in 2012. Experiences were conducted with forest-based products, as well as with agriculture-based products and different biowaste.

Today, the new bioeconomy is rapidly deploying and testing ecological barriers. “Our strategy calls for a better use of what we are already using, and of course use what we are not using yet,” Bras noted. Right now, it represents 1,5 million jobs and 63% of those are in rural areas, contributing to regional economy.

The latest trend in France and in many European countries is the End of Life cycle. This principal has hit the plastic industry, driven by the fact that 1/3 of single-use plastic products end up in landfills. Furthermore, the EU is calling for a 75% cut in production of single-use plastic bags. “The target is no more single-use plastic products in Europe starting in 2021. Understandably, we need new solutions very quickly,” Bras added.

Interestingly, biomaterials are also getting in on the circular economy game, marking a fairly stark contrast with the industry’s position only several years ago. “The circular economy and bioeconomy were rivals until very recently. Now they tend to complement each other, with the bioeconomy providing the opportunity for forest-based companies to close the loop of the circular economy,” Bras explained.

Finally, Sébastien Corbeil closed the session with a presentation on CelluForce, a new Windsor, QC, company producing up to 300 tonnes/year of NCC from wood fibres cells, macrofibrils, microfibrils and nanofibrils.

Funding, product/market fit and technology scale-up are the three main challenges that CelluForce had to overcome. “It is a capital-intensive, long developing cycle activity which has to show agility to accommodate changes. So the keys are knowledge and patience,” added Corbeil. Finding the right value chain partners can also be challenging. As for technology scale-up, timing is key, along with access to expertise, access to facilities, flexibility and safety of supply.”

Resistance to change must also be counteracted. “A client in the molded cellulose business was very reluctant to make any modification to its way of producing materials,” recalled Bras. “Now the new products that we helped to implant count for 60% of the company’s income. I think that on that side of things, out of the box thinking is very much needed.”

All three panelists agreed there is no competition in the bioeconomy, so there is room for many other players. “And the timing is perfectly right with the trend towards banning all single-use plastic bags. It is a very strong driver for change,” they concluded.


Jaclin Ouellet
Journalist, Paper Advance