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Wood Product Innovation: Nano-scale Cellulose Products Showing Promise for Future
Government wood research expert describes the latest developments in wood technology and product development. How might these innovations develop new markets for wood beyond what is common today? Expert shares his insights from the latest public and private research initiatives.

By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 6/1/2017

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with World Nieh, national program leader for Forest Products and Wood Utilization for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. His current areas of focus are helping develop new uses for wood, such as cellulose nanomaterial technologies and low-rise buildings and bridges, international standards to facilitate new uses of wood, policies and regulations, and creating a national network of manufacturing innovative institutes. He represents the Forest Service in several interagency groups, such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Bioeconomy Initiative (formerly Biomass and Bioenergy) and Advanced Manufacturing.

For more information on commercialization projects and wood product development research, visit the Forest Products Lab online at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/ or email World Nieh at wnieh@fs.fed.us.

 

Pallet Enterprise: Pallet people are looking for ways to get rid of residuals and wood scrap. What major areas do you see related to this issue? What are the new potential products and markets?

 

Nieh:

Nanotechnology has become one of the hottest areas of research and development in wood utilization globally. Several companies are starting to market cellulose nanomaterials or market products made with cellulose nanomaterials. Cellulose nanomaterials have the potential to be produced from scrap pieces of wood or wood chips.  Globally, this innovative new material is about five years from full commercialization. There are other new materials that have the potential to be produced from wood scrap, for example, cellulose (larger than nano-scale to wood fiber), lignin and hemicellulose. These polymers are already in many products today and research organizations are still working on technologies to develop innovative new products from these polymers. We’ll be seeing further developments in these polymers over the next 10 years. 

CLT (Cross-Laminated Timber, large-scale mass timber panels produced by gluing lumber in criss-cross layers) is a new product in the U.S. that may be able to use lower grade lumber. CLT technology is available right now...This is a new technology from Europe, used in buildings for many years. There are two mills certified to produce CLT for building construction in the U.S. and there are others pursuing production in the U.S. It is like the chicken and the egg right now, people interested in producing CLT want to see market acceptance, interested users want stable supply of CLT.  The key point is to educate the users — the builders, homeowners and especially the architects to specify the material.

Small diameter logs can be used to make products like oriented strand board and medium density fiberboard and pulp.  Residues from saw mill, woodworking and panel productions can be used to make particleboard. Burning directly as fuel is another alternative to use wood scraps.

               

Pallet Enterprise: What materials would they replace?

Nieh: Cellulose nanomaterials will compete with petroleum-based synthetic polymers because of their superior performance characteristics. Similarly, cellulose (larger than nano-scale), lignin and hemicellulose, the three polymeric components of wood, will also have the potential to replace many products made by petroleum-based synthetic polymers. For example, in Japan, a certain type of cellulose nanomaterial is already used in gel ink for ballpoint pens as a thickener because it performs better than existing chemical products. Oil drilling (for mud removal and maintain well pressure), fruit coating (improve shelf life), concrete (improve strength), packaging (better surface quality for printing, better barrier properties) and products for the food industry (nontoxic) are a few examples of large volume cellulose nanomaterials markets.  In 10 years, we may be able to lower the cost of producing cellulosic liquid transportation fuel so everyone in the supply chain can make a profit.

So CLT is available now. Cellulose nanomaterials are about five years away. In 10 years, new products from the three major polymers of wood. Beyond 10 years, use your imagination. Anything can happen.

 

Pallet Enterprise: What is the key strategic advantage of these new products from wood?

 

Nieh: Just like other products, performance and cost will play the key role the commercial success of these new materials from wood. If you’re going to make the same product, you better be a lot cheaper. This is the biggest problem with liquid transportation fuel — I’m just using that as an example. It doesn’t matter what source it is, whether it’s from plants or algae. We’re making the same product. If you’re going to try to break into the market, it better be cheaper and work as well or better or you are never going to be able to replace conventional fuels and energy sources.

What we have to do is take advantage of the special performance properties cellulose nanomaterials and cellulose and lignin.  These materials have performance properties unmatched by competitive products. Producers can break into the market because of their unique properties. 

 

Pallet Enterprise: What are examples of the kind of properties of wood that plastic does not have that would make wood attractive for certain applications?

Nieh: For example, nano-scale cellulose changes the flow properties in ways better than synthetic materials.  Just a small amount of it can increase this property of a water-based liquid very quickly.

Ink with cellulose in there flows immediately. The ink will flow continuously, and when you stop writing with an ink pen, it stops flowing very quickly. It’s a special property that nothing else has.

For biological applications, cellulose is safe. It’s a polymer that’s safe for the body.

It’s light-weight. Nano-scale cellulose is lighter weight yet has better strength properties. There is interest in using it in automobile materials too.

               

Pallet Enterprise: Are there any commercial products close to getting some market acceptance, or are they all 5-10 years away?

Nieh: One that is immediately available is CLT. With nano-scale cellulose we’re seeing products under development in laboratories, but they’re not yet competitive. Some are being field tested in Europe.

Some commercial products are available. The Japanese developed a ballpoint pen with an improved gel ink. It is available in the United States from Amazon. There is also a nano-scale cellulose layer used for deodorant layer in adult diapers in Japan. Oil drilling may emerge to become a major maket for cellulose nanomaterials. Improved storage life for packaging, improved surface smoothness for paper, flavor enhancement in food products, healthcare products are a few other emerging markets.

 

Pallet Enterprise: For nano-scale cellulose projects, how important are the size of the wood material, dimensions, and other physical considerations?

Nieh: Theoretically, nano-scale cellulose can be produced from wood scraps and saw dust.  However, you want to use the existing manufacturing infrastructure and supply chain for this kind of research and development. With the nano-scale cellulose projects, we work with paper companies because pulping is an easy way to take apart wood fiber. With a little additional effort, pulp mills can make nano-scale cellulose very easily. That shortens commercialization time. There are four pilot-scale mills in the United States making nano-scale cellulose and 2-3 in Canada.

 

Pallet Enterprise: Transportation costs are an issue, whether you’re moving finished wood products or raw materials. Distance and transportation costs impact raw material markets for fuel, pellets, and other products. There may be multiple processes involved and transportation stages and costs. Is it the same for the type of products that are under research and development?

Nieh: That’s a big consideration, just like any other raw material. Right now we’re just taking advantage of the existing infrastructure. In my opinion looking forward to the future, forestry will have to focus on the East Coast and the Southeast.  This will be driven by population trends and the economic growth of these regions.

The East Coast and Southeast have lots of forests and trees already.  These regions also have existing manufacturing infrastructure.  So in the future, as we see more people migrating to these regions, I think we will have raw material (trees), manufacturing facilities and consumers within reasonable distance of each other and citizens will also recreate in forests.  That’s where the human-forest interaction is going to be.

 

Pallet Enterprise: Let’s return to the subject of a liquid transportation fuel. I know wood material was used in the development of an aviation fuel, and there may be others. How long will it take to develop? What have been the outcomes so far?

Nieh: A biojet from wood was developed and blended into regular aviation fuel.  The blend was successfully demonstrated in a commercial flight from Seattle to D.C.  A lot of the drive for aviation fuel comes from regulations in Europe.

United Airlines already is using a biofuel for their flights out of Los Angeles...because California is much more ‘friendly’ to biofuels. The Seattle flight demonstrated that we can develop the technology. 

 

Pallet Enterprise: What about government involvement? In Europe, for example, there has been some back and forth on policies related to renewability and sustainability. Some of them have come under attack. Are they likely to change? Where is Europe headed as far as wood biomass used for energy?

Nieh: Let me answer it this way. First of all, policy instability. We’ve been hearing that in the United States for the past five, seven, eight years. Ever since biomass and bioenergy began gaining acceptance, the biggest obstacle we hear from the private sector is not technology. It’s always been policy instability.

The Drax power plant in England switched from coal to fuel pellets because the U.K. government used a carrot or stick approach.  To expand markets, the fuel pellet industry in the U.S. is looking at other countries and uses of the pellets.

               

Pallet Enterprise: What steps can the forest products industry take to start solving some of these challenges and promoting acceptance of CLT in the United States? What can the industry do, and what can the government do?

 

Nieh: First of all a manufacturing standard is already in place. The industry is organized. They have field people out there, especially on the West Coast, trying to educate builders and architects. I think they’re doing the right thing, and there is a significant amount of organized efforts to promote CLT.

New product development and launch is not easy. From the time you complete laboratory work to the early stages of commercialization and final product launch, it all takes a huge leap of faith for investors. So it’s going to take a little time.

This is the normal progression of product and market development. With its organized effort, the industry is making progress with CLT toward more construction projects using this technology.

 

Pallet Enterprise: In some ways CLT is adding building component to the lumber market, but it’s not really doing anything to solve the problem of residuals. Wouldn’t you agree?

Nieh: Right. CLT uses larger pieces of wood. CLT is made of lumber glued together, not composites. They are glued together, cross-grained.

One of the benefits of CLT is that total building project cost is much lower. It takes a much shorter time to construct a building with CLT so the total project cost is going to be much cheaper. Construction takes less time so you have less labor.

With smaller pieces of wood, you have a challenge here. Ultimately, it comes down to location and transportation costs. Burning it directly as fuel is going to be the easiest way to use it for now.








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