In Lux’s recent overviews of the landscape of carbon fiber recycling technology and of the outlook for carbon fiber in emerging rail and marine applications, we highlighted the need for scalable composite repair technology as a key limiting factor in future growth in continuous fiber composite adoption. Repair has also been a consistent concern for automotive carbon fiber. Continue reading
Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is a cellulosic material that has caught the attention of many with its unusual properties. Structurally, NCC consists of rod-like crystals with diameters of 5 nm to 20 nm and lengths of up to a few micrometers. A closely related material microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), that is often significantly longer, has a micro-scale diameter, and frequently forms a mesh-like network. While the material can be isolated from any cellulose-containing sources, by far, most NCC efforts today utilize wood as the starting material.
While NCC (aka nanocellulose fiber, nanocellulose, or cellulose nanofibers) can be produced through numerous methods, two stand out. The first relies on acid treatment: when concentrated acid is added onto wood pulp in a controlled fashion, it selectively eats away the amorphous region of the cellulosic body, releasing the robust crystalline region as separate particles. The method is used by companies such as Melodea and CelluForce. The second method is the production through mechanical forces. The fundamental principle is comparable to that of the first method – when cellulosic material is subjected to extreme shear forces, it will disintegrate in its weakest points (the amorphous region), leaving the more robust crystalline region intact. The company Zelfo uses the mechanical method in its production. Unfortunately, these producers are very early stage today, and with the limited insight that these companies provided into their respective technologies, it is difficult to say which technology will win at this stage. However, we believe these technologies will be confronted with similar challenges that comparable cellulosic pretreatment technologies are facing (see the report “Cellulosic Chemicals and Fuels Race to Compete with First-Gen Sugar Economics” — client registration required).
The excitement surrounding NCC arises mainly thanks to the material’s unique mechanical, rheological, and optical properties. Because of its strong intramolecular bonds, NCC exhibits mechanical properties allegedly comparable to that of carbon nanotubes, aluminum, and Kevlar. The crystallinity of NCC prevents excessive light scattering, enabling the formation of transparent films. NCC’s rheological characteristics have likewise received much attention – the material is capable of influencing the flow properties of liquid with which it is mixed. NCC is also amenable to an ample permutations of chemical (e.g. acetylation and esterification) and physical adjustments (e.g. the alterations of the particle’s dimensions), each of which impacts the material’s final properties. All these characteristics open up a wide variety of potential applications, including films and coatings, papermaking additives, paint and food rheology modifiers, cosmetics, and concrete strengthening additives. We believe that among these options, the first deployment will occur in the construction industry (e.g. cement rheology modifier, foams, and concrete additive). The adoption of NCC in this field is relatively easier compared to in other fields, as here it does not require complicated testing, entails little changes in operating procedures, is relatively unimpeded by cumbersome regulations (compared to medical and food-related applications), and potentially provides numerous physical improvements and cost reduction opportunities at reasonable prices.
In many of these potential applications, NCC competes with established materials, such as carbon nanotubes. With the multitude of unique properties that it exhibits, coupled with the material’s renewability, NCC has a strong chance to triumph against these incumbents. However, as with any other emerging bio-based material, NCC’s commercial success largely hinges on its cost. A number of companies have put forward cost projections that range from $2/kg (from Zelfo) to $25/kg (from Celluforce). Although these hypothetical values would place NCC well below many incumbent competitors (e.g. carbon nanotube, which currently sells for around $100/kg), it is worth highlighting that these figures vary wildly depending on the specific type of NCC produced and are mere projections whose realization would require large-scale industrialization. In addition, carbon nanotubes are a significantly more mature additive than NCC. Startups like Zyvex Technologies (client registration required) already have multi-walled carbon nanotube enhanced resins and adhesives on the market.
Today, the NCC industry finds itself in an important juncture, with some of its early entrants transitioning from laboratory scale to pilot scale. Pulp and paper companies like Stora Enso, Domtar, Borregaard, and UPM play an outsize role in driving the industry forward by investing in the construction in pilot plants and supplying the plants with feedstocks. For example, in late October, Borregaard announced a $34 million investment in a microfibrillar cellulose (MFC) facility. The industry’s shift towards early stage production is accompanied by the proliferation of studies investigating the applications of NCC (see the graph below). With sample quantities of NCC now available and the investigation on NCC skyrocketing, we expect more concrete product development to commence immediately, providing clearer insight as to which applications will achieve commercialization first.
As NCC development enjoys both market push (economic incentive from producers to turn low-value cellulose to high value NCCs) and market pull (broad demand from end-users for renewable products with interesting properties), its path forward might be smoother than that of other bio-based products. However, its future commercialization, like that of any other novel materials, necessitates the overcoming of numerous challenges, including the selection of the appropriate chemical and physical profiles, the design of efficient production technologies, the demonstration of performance superiority vis-à-vis its competitors, and the thorough assessment of NCC’s potential health hazards. NCC producers that are in the best position to surmount these hurdles are those with strong ties to chemical and/or pulp and paper companies and that spend a large proportion of their budget on application development like CelluForce.
We foresee that the first NCC product will be commercialized within the next three years. Clients with access to cellulosic feedstock should consider launching an NCC-centered R&D program or collaborating with NCC startups; clients targeting markets listed above should consider requesting samples from NCC producers for evaluation purposes.