Sweden, 1949: Scientists discover the tiny particles that give trees their rigidity. Called cellulose nanocrystals, these needle-shaped fibres comprise 20 percent of a tree’s mass.
In the mid-1990s, Derek Gray was among the first researchers in Quebec to study these fibres, which form a substance called nanocrystalline cellulose, or NCC. At that time, the McGill University researcher was studying the iridescent properties of NCC along with another scientist, Jean-François Revol. When immersed in water or added to glass, NCC reflects a broad spectrum of colours.
In their Montreal laboratories, Dr. Gray and his team were able to refine the methods of extracting the nanocrystals from wood pulp and produce several grams of the substance. At the time, Dr. Gray could not yet conceive of all of NCC’s potential applications – “the original research was essentially curiosity motivated,” he says. It would take nearly 10 years for commercial opportunities to materialize.
“A crisis always represents an opportunity,” states Jean Bouchard, senior researcher with FPInnovations, a private research institute that focuses on forest products. Three years ago, the forest industry was in crisis. At that time, Mr. Bouchard was mandated to find new markets for forest products. The solution would come from Dr. Gray’s laboratory.
According to researchers, the potential uses for NCC are virtually limitless: in office tower window glass, in helicopter cockpits, in car interiors or in home exteriors or flooring. The advantage of these tiny fibres, which are stronger than steel, is that they render materials rigid and durable while still lightweight.
For the time being, paints and varnishes are among the simplest products in which to integrate NCC, thereby increasing their durability. Several other applications are still at the experimental stage. However, its developers are thinking big: in five to 10 years, the fibre could be incorporated into hundreds of products. NCC might even find itself inside the human body. Researchers are currently exploring the possibility of incorporating the particles into materials used in hip and dental replacements.
Today, Canada is the world’s leading producer of nanocrystalline cellulose and ranks first in research in this area. According to data from FPInnovations, the North American market for NCC may reach $250 million.
The FPInnovations research institute has partnered with leading paper manufacturer Domtar to build a plant in Quebec’s Eastern Townships capable of producing NCC in large quantities – one ton per day by September. Researchers will gain easy access to samples of these nanoparticles in order to further their research and develop new applications, says Pierre Lapointe, president and CEO of FPInnovations.
The Government of Alberta also announced recently that it and the federal government are investing $5.5-million in a pilot plant to produce NCC in Edmonton. The plant “will allow researchers to test and validate NCC from a variety of forest and agriculture materials for use in diverse applications.”
Will NCC save the forest industry? It is likely one of the ingredients that will help it to flourish, notes Ron Crotogino, president of ArboraNano, a consortium that promotes wood nanotechnologies. “Innovation will save this industry, and nanotechnology falls into this category,” he says. “The pool of forestry sector researchers in Canada is exceptional. This partnership between academic researchers and industry is a crucible which will undoubtedly accelerate innovation. For now, this collaboration is successful and the results are promising,” he says. The Forest Products Association of Canada issued a similar response: “The market potential is strong, but not enough to keep the forest industry afloat,” says Avrim Lazar, president of the association. “The question is not whether the market exists, but rather how to break into it.”