By Jack Miller, Principal Consultant, Biobased Markets, and author of Nanocellulose: Packaging Applications and Markets, a Fastmarkets RISI Special Study
In June, the world’s leading researchers and producers of nanocellulose assembled in Chiba, Japan at TAPPI’s International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials (TAPPI Nano). Technical papers discussed topics ranging from production technology to applications. In my presentation, I reported that 75% of all nanocellulose is produced by mills and used in their own paper and paperboard production. Most of this has been in Europe and the Americas, while Asian mills, especially in Japan, have focused on higher value added applications that require high-cost chemically modified cellulose nanofibrils (CNF). However, during the conference, I found that Asian mills are now beginning to explore opportunities to produce lower-cost forms of nanocellulose for packaging and other paper and board applications.
As I explained in Nanocellulose: Packaging Applications and Markets, packaging paper and paperboard is a natural application for nanocellulose for many reasons. Critical challenges to commercial development of nanocellulose include the technical challenges of drying and redispersion and compatibilization with hydrophobic polymers. These challenges disappear for mills producing nanocellulose and using it their own paper and board. Cost is also greatly reduced as the material need not be chemically modified, nor does it need to be dried, shipped, and redispersed.
Opportunities for nanocellulose in packaging largely derive from improved strength and barrier. Lightweighting is one obvious application, but the opportunities go much further. Applications can also include the use of more of more mineral filler and less fiber for improved opacity and printability at lower cost, as well as the use of less expensive fibers, e.g., unbleached vs. bleached, recycled vs. virgin, hardwood vs. softwood, or mechanical vs. kraft.
A good example is white top liner (WTL), where bleached fiber is replaced with unbleached, and fiber is replaced with low cost mineral filler. WTL is a two-ply paperboard with bleached fiber on the top layer for print quality, and lower cost unbleached fiber on the bottom layer for strength (Figure 1). The reference sheet used 80 gsm of unbleached fiber and 52 gsm of bleached fiber with 14.5% mineral filler. With the addition of 2.5% microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), strength can be improved so that filler levels can be increased to 23.5%. This also increases the opacity of the bleached layer so that the thickness of the expensive bleached layer can be reduced and the lower-cost unbleached layer increased. Numerous other applications for surface treatments or base sheet additives are in commercial use or under development by mills in Europe and the Americas. These are discussed in detail in the study Nanocellulose: Packaging Applications and Markets.
Asian producers have not been pursuing applications with paper and paperboard, because their chemically modified CNF is too expensive and better suited to high value-added applications. Nippon Paper is the leading Asian producer of nanocellulose, with capacity for 560 tonnes of CNF, followed by Daicel and Chuetsu Pulp and Paper (Table 1), and several others with smaller pilot or demonstration scale facilities. Commercial applications have included gel inks for ballpoint pens, CNF foam for ASICS running shoes, CNF reinforced plastics for automotive products, and modified CNF for confectionary, cosmetics, and deodorant and absorbent sheets for personal care products.
However, globally, the largest producer of nanocellulose is FiberLean Technologies, with three commercial installations globally at client mills who are producing paper and paperboard using FiberLean mineral-MFC composite, including white top linerboard at NorPaper in France. In Europe and North America, companies like Kruger, Norske Skog, Stora Enso and SAPPI, are also reported to be producing and using MFC, and industry sources suggest a number of other mills are also quietly and confidentially producing nanocellulose for use in their own paper and board, and now Asian mills are set to follow.
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Study author Jack Miller is Founder and Principal Consultant, Biobased Markets. Jack is an Associate Consultant with Fastmarkets RISI and is a member of the Advisory Board of Sweetwater Energy, a biorefinery company. He served as Business Development Consultant with CelluForce, Inc., from 2011 to 2013, and was Consulting Manager, Global Nanocellulose Sales, American Process, Inc., in 2014 and 2015. Jack is also the author of Nanocellulose: Technology, Applications and Markets, published by RISI in 2014, and Lignin: Technology, Applications, and Markets published by RISI in 2017. He is also the author of Nanocellulose Producers, Products and Applications, A Guide for End Users, published by TAPPI, 2017, and Nanocellulose Challenges and Opportunities: End User Perspectives, published by TAPPI, 2018.