Nanocellulose Pilot Plant is “A Game-Changer”

Industry leaders, government officials, and Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) scientists recently celebrated the opening of FPL’s new Nanocellulose Pilot Plant, a production facility for renewable, forest-based nanomaterials. The $1.7 million pilot plant, the first of its kind in the United States, positions FPL as the country’s leading producer of forest-based nanomaterials.

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USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman talks with FPL chemical engineer Rick Reiner during the grand opening of the FPL Nanocellulose Pilot Plant.

Industry representatives from IBM, Lockheed Martin, Ecolab, the pulp and paper industry, and various universities met with keynote speaker Harris Sherman, USDA Natural Resources and Environment Under Secretary, and FPL Acting Director Michael Rains, among others, to discuss opportunities for advancing wood-based nanotechnology into new markets. The new facility will bolster an emerging market for wood-derived renewable nanomaterials, helping to spur forest-based job growth and contribute an estimated $600 billion to the American economy by 2020.

“Forest Service science touches almost everyone in every way, every day,” said Rains during a talk to industry leaders, scientists, and other Federal staff. “Forest Service research is now creating innovative science and technology required to keep forests in forestry,” said Rains. “From abundant water; clean air; better, safer houses; helping keep wood bats in Major League Baseball; to those sticky stamps that you put on your envelopes when you enjoy mailing a letter… Now, we are about to embark on a new, exciting adventure called wood-based nanotechnology.”

“It’s a game-changer,” said Rains about the great potential of the FPL pilot plant. Rains has high hopes that nanocellulose research can use woody material removed from overgrown forests to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfire while adding value to biomass from forest thinning projects. FPL’s new facility will aid in the commercialization of nanocellulosic materials by providing researchers and early adopters with working quantities of both cellulose nanocrystals and nanofibrils.

Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than Kevlar fiber and provide high strength with low weight. Such attributes have attracted the interest of the Department of Defense for use in lightweight armor and ballistic glass as well as companies in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, and medical device industries.

Echoing Rains, Under Secretary Harris Sherman also called the pilot plant a “game changer,” describing the exciting advances being made in the field of wood nanotechnology at the FPL.

“I am excited by this bold and new frontier,” said Sherman in his keynote address. “We’re moving to a whole new world.”

But in a time of tight budgets, the Forest Service alone cannot advance nanotechnology, said Sherman. “We need to build our public/private partnerships.”

Sherman stressed that he welcomes discussion with industry leaders about expanding cooperation at the Federal level to develop effective partnerships. “My door is open… to talking about how we can expand at the Federal level our resources and commitment to what is occurring here today,” Sherman said. Such partnerships demonstrate how “we are all stepping to the plate, rolling up our sleeves, and putting our shoulder to the wheel.”

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By James T. Spartz, FPL Public Affairs Specialist