By Tony Kryzanowski
Wood is a form of cellulose that is green, abundant, and a sustainable biomaterial. It is probably the most abundant biomaterial on Earth. No wonder we build with it.
Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are a biomaterial that can be extracted from wood, and they are part of the family of naturally-occurring biomaterials in a tree that provide it with its ability to survive in a sometimes harsh environment. These materials help trees bend without breaking, resist pathogens and insects, and process food.
The discovery of how to extract CNC more efficiently attracted a lot of hype about 20 years ago and Canada jumped on the bandwagon, investing millions of dollars into advancing this technology toward commercialization.
Considerable federal and provincial financial support helped Windsor, Quebec-based CelluForce improve our knowledge of CNC and its potential applications. CelluForce describes itself as the world leader in the development and production of CNC. Two of its shareholders are FPInnovations and Domtar.
The commercialization of CNC is incredibly important for the Canadian forest industry. Any business owner will tell you that there are two ways to make money. One way is to produce very high volumes of a valuable commodity with the expectation of a small, predictable return per unit. Softwood lumber and wood pulp fall into this category. The second way is to produce low volumes of a valuable product at a very high profit margin. CNC falls into this category. That is why the extraction of novel biomaterials like CNC is so important to the forestry sector, to help it diversify its product mix and prosper more from the growing, global bioeconomy.
However, the hype related to CNC has diminished over the past decade. Many in the forest industry wonder if Canada didn’t jump the gun. There has been some early commercial success in the production of more environmentally-friendly drilling fluids used by the oil and gas industry.
There has also been a patent filed for its use as a paint additive, where light coming into contact with CNC-enhanced paint kills superbugs in hospitals. The medical supply industry is also investigating CNC for the construction of prosthetics and drug delivery systems for treatment of such ailments as throat cancer. There has also been a lot of discussion about CNC’s strength properties and its future potential to design and build stronger, lighter aircraft. It has even been described as stronger than Kevlar, the material used in bullet-proof vests.
The challenge with CNC has been that despite its wonder material potential on its own merit—and as a potential green substitute for some truly nasty, non-organic, nanomaterials—it was so novel 20 years ago that considerable research work needed to be conducted to discover just how safe it is to use, even though it is a green and sustainable biomaterial. CelluForce and others working with CNC also needed to introduce it to many industries, work with them to find ways that it could be applied within their products, and discover the lowest hanging fruit for its commercial application. And a lot more work needed to be done on the production end to improve CNC recovery per tonne of wood fibre input.
It seems that Canada’s investment and CelluForce’s patience is about to pay off handsomely—which should have the country’s forest industry standing up and taking notice.
At the end of September, CelluForce announced a watershed 10-year commercial agreement with a multinational company working in the cosmetics sector granting them a world-wide exclusivity for the commercialization of CNC-based cosmetic products.
CelluForce expects multi-million dollar sales of its CNC over the next decade and has already decided that it will require a new, larger capacity plant in the near future. This is despite the restart of their Windsor plant in early 2019 after a major upgrade allowing them to produce 300 tonnes of CNC per year. It has new cutting edge equipment to increase process efficiency by 50 per cent and allows the company to produce various grades of CNC.
CelluForce says that the use of CNC in cosmetic applications will result in more environmentally-friendly and more efficient products. For example, CNC is already used by several hydroalcoholic gel producers as a biodegradable gelling agent.
The question now is whether this is the tipping point and has CNC finally found its financial footing? If this application leads to the type of expansion that many forest companies have been hoping for, CelluForce will need more raw material suppliers.
Another question is whether this agreement will be the impetus that pushes some forest companies to build CNC production facilities as part of their own operations. Some like Al-Pac in Alberta are very close. CelluForce may need these types of strategic partners to help it fulfill market demand—and what looks to be a promising future.
On the Cover:
With equipment such as this Eltec harvester, Freya Logging, based in Prince George, B.C., has proven itself to be a versatile and diversified log harvesting contractor, handy attributes to have during a period of industry transition. Freya has demonstrated a willingness to take on a range of logging assignments in the B.C. Interior. Read all about the outfit beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of Freya Logging).
Win/win deal = getting more fibre out of the forest
A new fibre supply agreement in B.C.’s Cariboo region is leading to better forest resource utilization for the Esk’etemc First Nation, and more fibre for wood pellet producer, Pinnacle Renewable Energy.
Freya Logging tackles range of harvesting jobs
Freya Logging has proven to be a versatile and diversified logging contractor in the B.C. Interior, taking on a range of harvesting work, including commercial thinning, with a variety of equipment.
Making a mark with mill upgrade
A major investment in Alberta’s Foothills Forest Products is being described as a pivotal moment in the sawmill’s history.
Not your typical wood pellets …
The new Skeena Bioenergy plant in B.C. is not a typical wood pellet operation—using proven European equipment, it is turning out high quality wood pellets from a feedstock of Western Hemlock, not SPF.
Training for work—and a career—in the forest industry
A recently developed program in northwestern Ontario is helping to train First Nations members as equipment operators for work—and a career—in the forest industry.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski notes that a recent wood biomaterial supply agreement with a major player in the global cosmetics industry is massively important to the forestry sector.