It's ironic that for years Canada's forestry industry has been accused of not seeing the bigger picture when it comes to making itself competitive, and yet the solution to many of its woes has come from an emphasis on the microscopic. Or, rather, on the 'nano.'
Solutions driven by nanotechnology are allowing Canada's forestry industry to reinvent itself in dramatic new ways. With an ability to intersect industry with enterprise, nanotechnology is offering up creative, environmentally sound products that have allowed Canada's forestry sector to penetrate new and emerging markets. The value this ability holds for the industry was formally recognized by TAPPI, in its creation of a new award to recognize developments in the field. The first recipient of the TAPPI International Nanotechnology Technical Award was Richard Berry, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Celluforce, who offered insight and observation on how the forestry game is changing – one nano solution at a time.
PA (PaperAdvance): Can you discuss in some detail your career trajectory? How did you begin to work with nanotechnology?
RB (Richard Berry): My father was in the Royal navy in England and he moved around the country a lot. I finished my education in Bath, in Southwest England and then moved on to Keel University, where I studied geology and chemistry. It was a four year program with a foundation year where you were exposed to science, arts and humanities, and it offered students the opportunity to change their commitment to a major after the first year. I remained very much interested in chemistry and once I finished my degree, I decided to move to Canada and take my PhD at McGill. I worked on a project with a professor who had a cross-appointment at PAPRICAN and McGill, and ended up developing a very deep interest in what he was working on. At that point, I didn't really see my own work in relation to wood chemistry; I considered it to be in polymer chemistry. At one point I figured I should probably get a job and the professor told me there were openings at PAPRICAN (now FPInnovations). I was brought in to that organization and stayed there for 30 years – right up until I was seconded to CelluForce. The majority of my time at Paprican was spent looking at chemical pulping processes and their various impacts. I did a lot of work on pulping, bleaching and environmental issues, and it was a very good time to be doing that - it was exciting. There was a lot going on. But, the industry began to realize that many of its products wouldn't be able to sustain such a rapid growth rate and the Canadian government recognized a need to invest in transformative technologies, nanotechnology being one of these. I spent the last five years at FPInnovations responsible for working on nanotechnology and the potential impacts it could have on the pulp and paper industry. I suppose I was successful enough – some of those ideas led to a market place for new materials.
PA: In what ways does the TAPPI award signal an industry-wide recognition of the potential nanotechnology holds for future growth and development of the sector?
RB: TAPPI has always had an award for each of its divisions, but the nanotechnology division is fairly new – I believe it was created within the last 3-4 years. It took a while for the value of nanotechnology to be recognized. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and of course, to have done some of the rights things. Certainly it's a great honour to be recognized in this way, but I had the benefit of working with a tremendous team of people. I believe the creation of this award does signal a shift in the market. One of my colleagues noted to me recently that at one of the other conferences TAPPI puts on, they have 'hot topic' breakfasts, where people aggregate around a table, according to the topics that are of particular interest to them. At the conference in question, there were a number of hot topics, but they tended to be more traditional in focus – how to improve the efficiency of your recovery boiler, for example. According to my colleague, the speaker discussing nanomaterials drew 80% of the attendants to his table. It's an indication of the growth of this area, and the participation of industry. Not just pulp and paper, but other industries are beginning to appreciate the opportunity for this material in the work they do. One other beautiful thing about the ability of nanomaterials is their capacity to bring young people to the industry. We're now able to attract a different demographic. It's a tremendous time and very exciting to be part of this.
PA: Can you discuss the mechanics of NCC? How does it work? Why is it a green, clean alternative?
RB: I don't necessarily look at it as an alternative material. It has unique properties and elements about it are certainly intriguing. The value of the product lies in its being highly crystalline, with a high aspect ratio of 20. It operates in an elliptical fashion, and the capacity it has for networking and arranging particles, couldn't be found in a material with spherical properties. A material such as this can be difficult to manufacture, and so having nature do it for you is an advantage in this case. There is lots of strength associated with the particle, particularly in its capacity to orient and produce structure that is fluid. It has liquid crystal properties. This is very valuable in terms of having a use in the oil and gas, cement and paint sectors. Beyond that, NCC has a high surface area, which means you can use it as a catalytic service, and can orient particles in electromagnetic fields. You can generate layers of this material on a film and you will get reflective properties, where you will see changes in colour. Because of the way these materials interlace, they can be used to harden surfaces, and therefore ensure the improvement in the permeability of a surface. Additionally, it has antioxidant properties in its own right, which prevents corrosion. Ultimately, whenever you put this material into someone's hands, they find something else they can do with it – and that's the challenge. We can't do it all ourselves, and we'd be stupid to try. What's important is to ensure we work with partners to fully realize the potential of this material, and that they are knowledgeable about it.
PA: Given the scope of opportunity for this material, do you envision a future where industry giants such as IBM and Bell may one day start up their own divisions to do the types of extraction work the forestry sector is doing now?
RB: It doesn't concern me. My background is such that I think it's wonderful to see that something you've been working on, a material in this instance, can produce a new reality going forward. In some respects, I liken it to the excitement people feel about new 'apps' – this is a material that can bring fascinating things to the world. But, to answer your question, I don't think one group, or company, could ever bring total ownership to this. Our whole model at Celluforce is to collaborate. Companies that have expertise to make use of the material, rely on companies like us, who have knowledge of the material itself. It's a good collaboration. I can't see most companies wanting to get into the manufacturing of the material – the way the world is going with an emphasis on specialization – I don't think that would make sense. Most companies are in fact divesting themselves of manufacturing and wanting to use materials that someone else worries about making. If you look at Domtar, for example, they are moving significantly into the industry of personal care. They are getting increasingly closer to the delivery of an end product, and not focusing just on pulp material. This trend is going to continue and we're going to see other companies focusing on these types of commodity-based opportunities.
PA: Can you discuss the Windsor plant? Do you expect it will expand? Are there plans for commercial plants in the future?
RB: Windsor is a demonstration plant. It was established to determine whether or not the principles we worked with in a laboratory setting could stand up to scaling. And this was a very substantial change in scale – 10,000 times what we had been working with during the pilot project phase at FPInnovations. Until it was built, we weren't sure how all of the different elements would work together, or what issues would arise. Now we do.
The plant has a capacity for roughly 1 ton per day; we're working at about 450 kg per day. It's important to note, however, that we've proven we can produce this material in quantity. I don't think we would build exactly what we have at Windsor in a commercial plant; we're looking to make some changes and once we have finalized what those plans look like, we will have the scope for a commercial plant. I suspect that process will take roughly two years, with an additional two to three years required for construction. In terms of where it might be located, that has yet to be finalized, but it certainly helps to be part of an already existing industrial complex, because the utilities are already in place. That said, we could benefit from a variety of partners, but it is helpful to have energy and treatment systems already available at the site. We may well see individual plants in key, core areas where there is an industrial opportunity for NCC. Because the material is high in value, but used in relatively low quantities, having easy access to transportation is key.
PA: Any concluding thoughts, or elements with respect to NCC that you would like to share with our readers?
RB: I think it's important to note that what this represents is just one of several opportunities. We shouldn't focus exclusively on NCC, but rather, we should be looking at a range of materials. There is a fibrular material that a lot of researchers are busy working away on, for instance. The recent announcement by Resolute and Mercer of their joint venture to develop commercial applications for cellulose filaments, is one example of companies developing non-traditional uses and applications for this material. It underscores that there are a number of materials moving forward towards commercialization – ours is one end of the spectrum - but the industry has an opportunity to look at this smorgasbord and decide where they will interface with this new family of materials that is available. There's room for many players going forward. Not all of them will choose NCC, but I suspect many of them will.
For more information, visit: www.celluforce.com