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Nanomaterials February 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Low-Cost Nanocellulose-Manufacturing Process

Why is this topic significant?

Nanocellulose is a material that holds a great deal of potential across a number of applications. The introduction of a low-cost, high-efficiency manufacturing process could hasten its commercialization.

Description

In December 2014, scientists from Edinburgh Napier University, working alongside colleagues from the major South African pulp-and-paper firm Sappi, announced the results of their research into low-cost, industrial-scale manufacturing processes for nanocellulose fibers. In addition to exhibiting advantages that link to sustainability, nanocellulose fibers exhibit high strength and impressive barrier properties—making them of high interest to a number of industrial sectors. The Napier/Sappi research employs recyclable chemicals to enable the commercially viable production of nanocellulose—eliminating the requirement for the more expensive chemicals and large volumes of water that are a feature of existing production methods. Sappi plans to build a pilot production plant "towards the end of 2015" and will collaborate with a variety of partners to develop a range of commercial products.

Implications

Important immediate implications of this development include the effect on the nanocellulose market landscape. Sappi will be aiming to exploit any production advantage that it may have—potentially enabling it to break into a market that already contains several established industrial players (such as Daicel, Asahi Kasei Corporation, Rettenmaier & Sohne, Oji Paper, BASF, CelluComp, and Celluforce). Sappi anticipates that the market for nanocellulose fibers could reach as much as 35 million tonnes per annum by the 2020s; a report released by Market Research Reports.biz in December 2014 claims that the nanocellulose market will be worth $250 million in North America alone within the next six years. These figures could prove to be optimistic, but even so, they still confirm a growth in commercial interest. Any advantage that a company can exploit—such as the Napier/Sappi developments—could prove crucial in terms of market penetration. Indeed, Sappi claims that this development continues its moves into "adjacent business fields based on renewable raw materials" and that the installation of the pilot plant will "help in delivering on Sappi's strategy to seek growth opportunities in new markets."

Impacts/Disruptions

The widespread use of the new nanocellulose-production methods could prove to be highly beneficial to the environment—reducing the negative impact of current processes. However, because Sappi's pilot plant is not yet online, any environmental benefits that could potentially occur would not be immediate.

Nanocellulose can also find use in environmental remediation applications, in addition to any environmental benefits that are a direct result of the increased-efficiency manufacturing process. For example, the June 2014 Viewpoints discusses the use of nanocellulose sponges to absorb large quantities of oil from the surface of water following a spill. These absorbent properties also enable a range of other applications—for example, as medical dressings. Other areas in which nanocellulose has the potential to make a major impact include the replacement of glass fibers in the production of next-generation composite materials or its use as a thickener in products such as paint and cosmetics.

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:

Environmental remediation, composite manufacturing, food, health, cosmetics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Artificial-Photosynthesis Record Set

Why is this topic significant?

The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—as a result of burning fossil fuels—is a considerable global issue that links to climate change. Artificial photosynthesis could contribute to the solution to this problem.

Description

In November 2014, researchers at Toshiba Corporation announced the results of their research into an artificial-photosynthesis technology that employs gold nanoparticle catalysts to generate carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide and water. The carbon monoxide then acts a feedstock for the production of methanol—a substitute for traditional petroleum-based fuels. Toshiba's method uses a nanostructured gold catalyst—to optimize the number of active sites—in conjunction with a multijunction semiconductor that absorbs solar energy in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The system converts carbon dioxide into carbon compounds at an efficiency of 1.5%—the highest-ever-recorded efficiency for such a process. Toshiba aims to develop its artificial photosynthetic processes further to the point at which it could integrate them directly with facilities—such as power plants or factories—that produce high volumes of carbon dioxide. However, the company does not anticipate the widespread implementation of this nascent technology for at least another ten years.

Implications

Toshiba's advances in the field of artificial photosynthesis are highly impressive. With the announcement of this world-record-breaking technology, the company appears to be ahead of its competitors in this field. However, despite these impressive results, much work remains before such artificial photosynthetic systems see widespread use in commercial situations, and few immediate implications exist. In the longer term, a wide range of important implications could make artificial photosynthesis a key part of the future power-generation landscape. If this technology were to see extensive use, the environmental benefits could be vast. Not only would the process reduce the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—widely accepted as the chief cause of global warming—but it would also convert this carbon dioxide into a useful by-product, essentially giving rise to a new source of renewable energy. In addition to contributing to these environmental benefits, such a system would also contribute to the increasing efficiency of existing processes—potentially enabling companies to profit financially from what was previously a waste by-product of burning fossil fuels.

Impacts/Disruptions

Increasingly strict regulations governing the emission of carbon dioxide are likely to drive the development of schemes such as artificial photosynthetic systems. However, in addition to the significant levels of extra research that schemes such as Toshiba's will require before they can see use, several other potential barriers to the implementation of technologies such as Toshiba's also exist. For example, competition from more established renewable sources of energy could affect the economic viability of the technology under development at Toshiba. Alternatively, a general decline in the use of fossil fuels for power generation could even remove the need for such carbon dioxide–removal programs. As a result of these barriers to commercialization, artificial photosynthesis currently remains a highly uncertain but potentially high-impact technology.

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: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Oil and gas, biofuels, renewable energy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: