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Nanobiotechnology August 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Lucy Young

Nanocellulose: The Market Progresses

Why is this topic significant?

The market for nanocellulose is growing. As it does so, the competition to develop the optimal manufacturing method and lead the way in this burgeoning industry will increase.

Description

In June 2015, MarketsandMarkets estimated that the nanocellulose market in 2014 was worth $250 million, and it predicted the market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19% between 2014 and 2019. The abundance of nanocellulose's source material cellulose—an organic polysaccharide that is an important part of plant cell walls—and its variety of attributes—including a high strength-to-weight ratio, the ability to conduct electricity, and biocompatibility—make nanocellulose an attractive prospect for a range of applications. Such applications include lightweight body armor, displays for consumer-electronic devices, and biodegradable packaging.

Implications

As the nanocellulose market grows, the battle for a dominant manufacturing technique is likely to escalate. Nanocellulose manufacturers mostly use a top-down extraction process from plant cellulose that involves either mechanical or chemical actions. The application of energy-intensive mechanical shearing to plant cellulose results in the production of microfibrillated cellulose; the width of these fibrils varies from 3 to 100 nm. The chemical-manufacturing process requires strong acid hydrolysis—usually using hydrochloric and sulfuric acids—of cellulose. Although the chemical process can create uniform nanocellulose crystals, the technique requires large volumes of water. Additionally, the use of chemicals can be costly, in part because of the need for their safe disposal. In recent years, biotechnology researchers have investigated the use of bacteria as an efficient alternative for manufacturing nanocellulose (see the September 2013 Viewpoints).

Impacts/Disruptions

The battle is already spilling out of the laboratory and into industry. Recently, German chemicals company Evonik gave the biotechnology-based manufacturing of nanocellulose credence. In July 2015, the company announced that it had invested in JeNaCell—a spin-off company from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, in Germany. According to Evonik, JeNaCell is using a unique biotechnology method to produce nanocellulose and is developing the material for use in the treatment of burns and chronic wounds. However, technological advances in the chemical manufacturing method are increasing the competition for the biotechnology-based technique. In late 2014, scientists from Edinburgh Napier University, working alongside colleagues from the major South African pulp-and-paper firm Sappi, claimed to have developed a new method for manufacturing cellulose nanofibrils using recyclable chemicals at costs that are lower than typical chemical methods. Sappi is planning to erect a pilot plant to test the new method in the Netherlands by late 2015. Organizations interested in nanocellulose ought to monitor the progress of JeNaCell's and Sappi's manufacturing techniques to see which—if either of them—prevails. The optimization of nanocellulose-manufacturing technique will be vital to the success of the material.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Packaging, paper and pulp, defense, electronics, energy, biotechnology, chemicals, environmental remediation, medical implants

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

3D-Printed Nanobiotechnology

Why is this topic significant?

3D printing of biological structures offers the potential to build complex tissues and materials with implications across many sectors, including the pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and automotive industries.

Description

3D printing is well suited for use in nanobiotechnology applications. The benefits of modern 3D printers include their precision at small scales and the programmable nature of the designs that they can print. These traits are ideal for bottom-up construction of biological material. Indeed, many organizations are looking to make use of 3D printing in this way:

  • Consumer-goods company Procter & Gamble has partnered with the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research in Singapore to run a grant competition for 3D bioprinting research. The grant will form part of a $44 million research plan that will run for five years.
  • Cosmetics company L'Oréal has signed an exclusive deal with biological tissue designers Organovo to 3D print human skin. L'Oréal will likely use Organovo's NovoGen Bioprinting Platform to increase the accuracy and speed of testing of new products on skin.
  • Organovo is also working with American pharmaceutical company Merck to 3D bioprint liver and kidney tissue for preclinical drug testing and toxicology analysis.
  • Similarly, scientists at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine have transformed skin cells into 3D bioprinted beating heart cells and liver cells. The work is part of the $24 million "body on a chip" project that aims to connect miniature organs by means of microfluidics for use in the development of new drugs.

Nanobiotechnology is also acting as an enabling technology for 3D printing. Engineering company American Process is working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop an inexpensive substitute for the carbon fibers currently used in 3D-printed load-bearing parts. The researchers involved in the project will be investigating strong-but-light nanocellulose as a possible substitute material and believe the material could be highly attractive to the automotive industry.

Implications

3D bioprinting has the potential to make animal testing completely obsolete. Although most companies now avoid animal testing where possible, often laws require the testing of some products on animals. For example, UK law requires that manufacturers test new drugs on at least two different live mammal species. Apart from the potential harm that these animals may experience, the problem with animal testing is that it does not always provide accurate representations of how products will react with humans. As well as antiquating animal testing, the technology could significantly improve the manufacturing speed and quality of skin samples that many companies grow for testing purposes. For example, every year L'Oréal grows 100,000 skin samples, half of which it uses for its own research; the other half it sells to pharmaceutical companies and other cosmetics companies.

Impacts/Disruptions

Depending on 3D printing's success, it could help to shape the nanobiotechnology industry. The technology could make the manufacturing of nanoscale biological elements easier and lower in cost than current techniques. Furthermore, home 3D printing could result in the growth of biohacking, which has the potential to help rapidly evolve life-sciences technologies in general.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, automotive, aerospace, regenerative medicine, biofuels, chemicals, defense

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: