The Swedish firm said it is close to completing a pilot plant that will enable the production of nanocellulose on a commercial scale for the first time thanks to the development of a revolutionary energy-efficient process that has cut electricity consumption by 98 per cent.
The innovation means the company has taken a “decisive step towards large-scale the industrialisation” as prices of nanocellulose could be cut “very significantly”, Innventia research manager Mikael Ankerfors told FoodProductionDaily.com.
Nanocellulose, which is extracted from wood fibres, can be used in the production of highly effective barrier films for packaging and as a viscosity agent in foodstuffs. The substance is sustainable as it comes from a renewable source – in contrast to many other oil-based materials, said the company.
Its facility, due to be completed by September or October 2010, will be able to produce up to 100kg of nanocellulose a day.
“To put this in context, a typical surface barrier coating for packaging requires only 1g per square meter of nanocellulose,” said Ankerfors. “This means we can produce enough material every day to coat 100,000 sq m of packaging.”
He said the non-porous and crystalline properties of nanocellulose meant it was well- suited to film applications. Its performance as an oxygen barrier was comparable or better than other oiled-based products. The company was also in the process of developing its grease and vapour barrier capabilities, he added.
“Nanocellulose will be something revolutionary for the foodstuff industry too,” said Ankerfors.
The substance can be used as a viscosity agent and could replace carbohydrates and other additives in foodstuffs. Food companies could make cost savings as they would need to use less nanocellulose as it is highly viscous at low concentrations. It is also not degraded in the body as carbohydrates are, said the Innventia research chief.
“Despite being highly viscous, it is also easy to process as it loses its thickness when it is pumped,” said Ankerfors. “This means it is simple to move through production lines and easily mixed into foodstuffs. Once it stops moving it regains its viscosity.”
Innventia said its radical improvement in the energy efficiency of the nanocellulose production process has been key to its potential for industrial usage.
“The substance has been around for many years but has not been widely available because of the huge amount of energy needed to produce it,” said Ankerfors. “By making changes to the way the material is pre-treated before the homogenising stage, we have reduced energy consumption by 98 per cent. This reduction is equivalent to a saving of 29,000 kWh per tonne.”
Innventia said it has invested around €11m in long term research and plant costs. It said it would both supply the nanocellulose directly to companies and work in partnership to develop applications using the nanomaterial.
Ankerfors said: “This is a natural step in the investment we’re making in nanocellulose. In order to develop applications, such as paper and composite materials, the raw material produced in a lab is not sufficient. As the only company in the world, we’re extremely proud to be able to offer industry real opportunities to participate in this field, which is so important for the future. We are convinced nanocellulose has incredible potential across a range of applications.”