Yreka Hoping for a ‘Eureka!’ Moment: Small California Town Site of Nanocellulose Study

hp photosmart 720Yreka, California, (population 7,605) is the site of a feasibility study looking at building a nanocellulose production facility. It’s a town surrounded by forests but hit hard by mill closings over the past 25 years.

The Redding Record Searchlight newspaper recently published a story that highlights the local perspective of being involved in the study and what a production facility could mean for jobs, economics, and forest health in this rural Northern California area.

Local officials are enthusiastic about the possibilities. “They are interested in being a little bit more of a part of the future than of the past,” said Forest Products Laboratory supervisory research chemist Alan Rudie. Dr. Rudie is part of a team working on the study.

Everyone involved is eager to see what the future holds.

Senator Urges Collaboration in Nanocellulose Research

Nanocellulose was in the spotlight last week during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) highlighted work done at the University of Maine to support the forest economy and biobased industries, and emphasized the need for research and development institutions across the country to work together in support of American manufacturing and other home-grown industries.

    Collaborative research and development is encouraged to put these tiny wood fibers to big use.

Collaborative research and development is encouraged to put these tiny wood fibers to big use.

“One of the most important areas [of research] is nanocellulose technology. We have a goldmine of fiber in Maine, which historically has been used to make paper, [but] the paper industry has been brutally hammered in the last five or six years,” said Senator King. “We need a George Washington Carver of fiber – I remember from the sixth grade that George Washington Carver was the scientist who figured out a hundred ways to use peanuts. We need that kind of research [on uses of forest fiber].”

The Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) and the University of Maine have partnered on nanocellulose research for several years. In 2013, a nanocellulose pilot plant was constructed at the University of Maine through a joint venture with the U.S. Forest Service. The plant has the capacity to produce one ton of cellulose nanofibrils per day.

The University of Maine is part of a consortium of universities and non-profits led by FPL who work together to improve methods of isolating nanomaterials, characterize and develop standards for various grades of nanocellulose, and support emerging markets for products made from wood-derived renewable nanomaterials.

Nanocellulose Facility Under Study in Yreka, California

The following is a news release from the Klamath National Forest:

Scientists are working with local government officials and timber processors on a project that could help turn small-diameter trees into high-tech products. The key ingredient is microscopic particles of cellulose, called “nanocellulose.”  Scientists have found that nanocellulose materials have unique properties and may be useful in a variety of applications.

Nanocellulose is part of the emerging field of nanotechnology. Nanocellulose materials are strong, lightweight, colorless, and biodegradable. Possible uses may include lightweight armor, ballistic glass, car body panels, computer cases, food storage, and flexible electronics. Other products, such as concrete and structural panels, can be strengthened with the addition of nanocellulose.

Scientists and engineers are designing a larger version of the Forest Products Lab's nanocellulose facility, seen here,  that could one day be built in Yreka, California.

Scientists and engineers are designing a larger version of the Forest Products Lab’s nanocellulose facility, seen here, that could one day be built in Yreka, California.

The Yreka Cellulose Nanomaterials Project began in 2014, when the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors met with Forest Service officials. From that meeting came a proposal to evaluate the possible construction of a commercial-scale cellulose nanomaterials production facility in Yreka, California. Yreka was identified as a promising location due to the plentiful supply of wood and the support from local government.

On March 29 local officials received an update on the project from Dr. Alan Rudie, a chemist with the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

Dr. Rudie explained two different focuses of their research. One part of their work is to help develop commercial uses for cellulose nanomaterials. To that end, they have built a pilot facility at the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin. The pre-prototype facility produces both cellulose nano-crystals and cellulose nano-fibrils, and shares or sells them at cost to industry and research partners. The Forest Products Company mill in Yreka has supplied wood to the nanocellulose facility in Madison.

The other focus is on preliminary designs for a cellulose nanomaterial production facility in Yreka. Industry and university cooperators are studying six different methods of isolating cellulose nanomaterial. Dr. Rudie and his partners expect that in 2016 they will identify one or two designs to further explore. Actually building a facility would require a more detailed design and an industry investor.

Dan Blessing, Natural Resources Officer for the Klamath National Forest, is the local Forest Service contact for the Yreka Cellulose Nanomaterials Project. Dan emphasizes how operation of such a facility would benefit natural resource management on the Klamath National Forest.

“To help restore fire-resilient ecosystems here on the Klamath National Forest, we need to reduce forest fuels. We have a market for mid-sized trees when we do thinning or fire salvage. But much of the fuels on the Forest are smaller-diameter trees,” said Blessing. “Removing the smaller diameter trees is expensive and there are limited local facilities that have much use for them. Finding a market for cellulose nanomaterials and encouraging construction of a local facility to produce the materials will create a demand for the smaller diameter trees that will reduce the costs of local fuel reduction, benefiting our public forest and providing local jobs.”

Blessing emphasized that the project is still in the early stages. “While the commercial properties of cellulose nanomaterials are promising, much work remains. We’re hoping at least one industry partner will find the materials valuable enough to warrant construction of a larger facility. By having preliminary design of such a facility complete, maybe we can encourage a partner to build it here in Yreka.”

Also presenting at the March meeting was Michael Goergen, Vice President for Innovation with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities. One of their projects is the “Public-Private Partnership for Nanotechnology,” referred to as P3Nano. They see promise in the use of wood-based nanomaterial for a wide-range of commercial products, and are assisting with the Yreka project.