Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is one of the most searched items on this blog so it seemed like a good idea to send some questions about it to a Canadian company, FPInnovations, that has been a leader in its development. [Edited for typo, July 7, 2011] Dr. Richard Berry, program manager for FPInnovations very kindly answered. First a little biographical information,
Dr. Richard Berry is the manager of the FPInnovations Chemical Pulping Program and he has been the leader of the nanotechnology initiative at FPInnovations for the last several years. Dr. Berry is a key contributor to ArboraNano. His scientific accomplishments include work on the elimination of chlorinated dioxins and the development of a variety of bleaching technologies. Dr. Berry has overseen the industrial application of his numerous inventions. He is the author of more than eighty peer-reviewed publications and patents. The prestigious 2009 Nano-industry award from NanoQuébec was given to him for his exceptional contribution to the development of Nanocrystalline Cellulose. The initiatives Dr. Berry has spearheaded in recent years have allowed Canada to position itself as a world leader in the development of this new nanotechnology industry.
Now for the interview:
Q: In light of the new Domtar-FPInnovations plant [mentioned here in my July 16, 2010 posting] which is going to be built in Windsor, Québec, could you tell me a little about nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). I have looked at your information sheet which notes that cellulose is: milled then hydrolyzed with the NCC separated and concentrated so it can be treated chemically for new uses. In layperson’s terms, what’s cellulose?
A: Cellulose is the most abundant polymer on earth and is the major constituent of all plants; cotton is 100% cellulose. Cellulose is made of chains of glucose molecules and these arrange into amorphous (soft) and crystalline (hard) regions. These structures provide flexibility and strength respectively to the fibres that are made of cellulose.
The hard crystalline regions are separated from the soft amorphous regions in the process that we are using which also causes the separation of the crystallites in the crystalline regions. These crystallites are nanocrystalline cellulose and have a needle shape approximately 200nm in length and 10 nm in diameter
Q: What does hydrolyze mean, in simple terms?
A: Hydrolyze in this process means that we break the bonds between the glucose molecules. This reaction occurs far more rapidly in the soft amorphous regions of the cellulose structure leaving the hard crystalline regions largely intact
Q: After [Edited for grammar, July 7, 2011] all this processing, do you have nanocrystalline cellulose and how would you describe what nanocrystalline cellulose is?
A: The process is to produce nanocrystalline cellulose but many of the processing steps are to ensure that the process is closed cycle and that the acid used is recovered and that the dissolved glucose can be separated to make energy, ethanol or higher value chemical products.
Nanocrystalline cellulose is the basic physical building block of plants which therefore have used nanotechnology for eons. The crystallites are the reinforcement elements providing strength in wood, paper and fibres.
Q: Does the process use up the entire log or are parts of it left over? What happens to any leftover bits?
A: We are starting from the bleached chemical pulp which is, to a large extent, cellulose. The left over bits have actually been processed as part of the chemical pulp mill processes. The acid used is recovered and reused and the sugars are converted into other products; in the demonstration plant they will be converted into biogas.
Q: I understand you won’t want to give away any competitive advantages but could you describe at least partially the sort of chemical processing involved for these new applications?
A: In some applications, there is no processing needed at all. In other applications, the formulation used allows the NCC to be effective. In further applications, surface modification is required to maximize the properties.
Q: Is the new plant (Domtar-FPInnovations) meant to be used for producing nanocrystalline cellulose particles for shipment elsewhere? Or will there be work on applications using the nanoparticles? If so, on which application(s) are you concentrating your efforts?
A: The plant presently is for producing various grades of nanocrystalline cellulose for shipment elsewhere. The applications are being developed with partners in the new industry sectors that we are targeting. Amongst others, we have partners for applications in coatings, films and textiles.
Q: Is FPInnovations involved with the ArboraNano Centre of Excellence programme and its efforts to encourage NCC use in industries not usually associated with forest products? What might involvement entail?
A: FPInnovations is one of the founding members and had a significant role in setting up ArboraNano. Our involvement presently is as a supplier of NCC through our pilot plant in Pointe Claire and as members of both the Scientific Committee and Board of Arboranano.
Q: Assuming FPInnovations is attending the 2010 TAPPI [International Conference on Nanotechnology for the Forest Product Industry] in Finland, can you give me a preview of the company’s proposed presentation(s) at the conference?
A: Representatives of FPInnovations will be at the conference but our involvement will be limited because much of the material we have developed is proprietary to ourselves and to the partners that we have. Our focus at this stage is commercial development.
Q: What kind of research is being done on possible health, safety and environment issues with regard to NCC?
A: From the very beginning of our project, 20% of our funding has been spent on these issues. We are glad to say that the research has shown that NCC is in the category of “practically non toxic”, and mammalian studies done to assess inhalation, ingestion and dermal risk have all shown the material to be in the lowest category of risk. These results show that the size of a particle is not a determinant of its risk but as with chemicals it is the specific material that is critical in determining toxicity.
Q: Are there plans, at some point in the future, to list NCC on Charles McGovern’s Integrated Nano-Science Commodities Exchange or will your product be listed on some other commodities exchange?
A: We do not view NCC at the moment as a commodity; it is a very specialized group of materials. We hope it will take a long time before it becomes a commodity.
Thank you very much Dr. Berry.
On a related matter, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the documentation that the Canadian federal government provided in response to Member of Parliament, Peter Julian’s (NDP), question about nanotechnology funding from 2005/6 – 2008/9. The response from Natural Resources Canada highlighted funding provided to FPInnovations in fiscal year 2007/8 of $2,308,000 and in fiscal year 2008/9, a further, $3,2570,000 for a total of $5,565,000. Natural Resources Canada did not fund any nanotechnology research in 2005/6 or 2006/7.
One final note, former president and chief executive officer of FPInnovations, Ian de la Roche, PhD, will be the keynote speaker at the 10th Pacific Rim Bio-Based Composites Symposium Oct. 5-8, 2010 in Banff, Alberta. (Thanks to Joel Burford at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures for the information.)