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Wood-derived materials—a solution to the plastics crisis?

Cellulose is an integral part of wood fiber (40-45%) and the most abundant biopolymer on our planet[i]. From bacteria to majestic trees, it is omnipresent as a building block of plant cells. The transformation of plant cellulose has given rise to interesting cellulose materials including microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC), bacterial cellulose (BC) and nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). These advanced materials display some of the same mechanical and physical properties as plastics in both transparency and weight, but offer the advantage of strength, biodegradability, and antimicrobial properties.  While the first nanbrillated cellulose was produced in 1983, its commercial-scale production did not start until 2010 because of production costs and energy efficiency issues[ii].

According to the Global Market for Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials 2010-2030 report, the demand for high-volume production of nanocellulose comes from its incorporation as strengthening agents in paper, cement, natural rubber, and plastic films for packaging, especially in North America. Low-volume applications involve the design and engineering of biomedical materials for tissue engineering and drug/gene delivery.

As we observe the negative impact of plastics on the health of the biosphere, it makes sense to turn to these biodegradable cellulosic materials. In the last few years, the production of nanofibrillated cellulose has transitioned from a pilot scale production (kilograms) to commercial production (multi-tons).

While the development of high-end applications has been slow, as is typical of advanced materials, niche applications and integration in composite materials has been rapid. There are still issues to be solved in terms reducing the cost of production but exciting applications for bioengineering, printable electronics, and self-cleaning coatings have emerged. Indeed, nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) can be used as moisture barrier, as an emulsifier, as a lubricant, as a thickening agent, and as a material that can be modified for a specific application[iii].  Most Canadian universities have research programs related to cellulose and wood products, and Canadian government laboratories devote resources for research and testing of these materials.

The Asia-Pacific region dominates the regional demand for NFCs (2686 tons) followed by North America (82.5 tons), Europe (20 Tons). Not surprisingly, countries with abundant forestry resources are leaders in NFC production: Japan, USA, Canada, Sweden, and Finland.

According to the Global Market report for Cellulose Nanofibers[iv], the compound annual growth for demand of nanomaterials nanocomposites between 2018 and 2039 is 21.3%, while for automotive, it is forecasted to be 48.8%.

In its report on the Nanocellulose Market Size (June 2020)[v], Global Market Insights projects a market value of 418.2 million USD in 2026 with a compound annual growth rate of 21.4% from 2020-2026. The market growth drivers are associated with the demand of the packaging industry, the requirement for sustainable products across end-user industries, the growth of food and beverage industry world-wide, the oil and gas industry in North America, and the personal care sector in the Asia-Pacific region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased demand for personal protective devices from medical wear (textiles), protective masks and antimicrobial products, to better filtration devices for living and working spaces. While this has diverted the attention from the microplastics crisis, the development of a displacive technology for plastics remains a critical issue.

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[i] The Global Market for Nanocellulose to 2030, Future Markets Inc., January 2021
[ii] W. Brostow et al, Journal of Materials Education (32(3-4), 125-138 (2010)
[iv] The Global Market for Cellulose Nanofibers, Future Markets Inc., November 2020
[v] Nanocellulose Market Size, Global Market Insights, June 2020

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