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.


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

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Butch Blazer at FPL for Wood-to-Energy Roundtable

Arthur “Butch” Blazer, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, visited the FPL in Madison, Wis., recently to talk about wood-to-energy concerns in Wisconsin and the Midwest. Following a tour of FPL facilities and discussions with several project leaders, Blazer gathered a group of regional wood bioenergy leaders for an afternoon listening session.

Initiating the discussion, Blazer expressed his strong interest in being part of the discussion on the role of forest products in the renewable energy field. Blazer, who has had a long tenure with USDA and spent eight years as New Mexico’s state forester, stated his desire for an active, positive, and inclusive discussion.

Among the participants at the listening session were wood scientists and technology transfer authorities from FPL and the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, representatives from the logging and paper industries, academics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and its Great Lakes Bioenergy Resource Center, and top state natural resources officials. The discussion was moderated by Alan Rudie, supervisory research chemist at FPL and project leader for the new nanocellulose pilot plant at FPL.

Themes of the afternoon’s discussion included sustainability and job growth in regional forestry sectors, transportation and supply-chain issues, economies of scale, collaboration and cooperation among diverse natural resources entities, and the development of innovative markets for new and existing wood-to-energy products. When theories are put into practice, as was stressed by several participants, projects must take into account the limits of current transportation infrastructure and the long-term goals of providing sustainable, regional job growth. Forest product markets, including those for energy, must be diversified enough to provide long-term stability in any given forest-based economy.

Clearer communication was also stressed as a means to effective public engagement and community outreach. Developing consistent terminology for bioenergy communications was deemed essential. Engagement with diverse populations, including both urban and rural young people, to provide rationale for the healthy management of Federal forest lands was another active discussion topic. Effective outreach, proactive community engagement, and active discussions among professionals within existing forestry sectors help promote what Wisconsin State Forester Paul DeLong referred to as the “social license” for landowners to do forestry—to harvest and sell wood through active, sustainable forest management in order to satisfy various environmental, social, and economic values. Certification programs, such as Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law, have helped with this, said DeLong.

The key, DeLong said, is promoting synergistic growth where new markets are developed to strengthen existing efforts rather than crowd them out.

Returning to a theme brought up earlier in the session, Blazer restated his belief that it is important to reach out to young people who are asking the common question of “Why are we cutting trees down?” What we need to get across, said Blazer, is that the practice of forestry can be and is done “in a very respectful way… in a way that is helpful.” In everything we do, Blazer said, there must be a balance.

Creating forest management plans that reflect the localized needs of the ecosystem and communities of any given region is “critically important,” said Blazer. Speaking of the controversial new planning rule and its implementation, Blazer stressed that its success hinges on the active participation of those involved, from those in the forests on up to the Federal level.

“I’m optimistic that it’s going to happen.” Using what he heard at the FPL session, and similar recent meetings in Santa Fe and Seattle, affords Blazer the ability to incorporate insights and recommendations to inform his contacts in Washington, D.C. Engaging in conversations about bioenergy across many mission areas within USDA and
other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, is a primary goal for Blazer. In his concluding remarks, Blazer stated that the 1.5-hour listening session had been “very encouraging.”

“There is still work to do, of course,” said Blazer, “but you’re headed in the right direction.”

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By James T. Spartz, FPL Public Affairs Specialist

FPL Research Supports USDA’s $80 Million Biofuels Investment

By Rebecca Wallace, Public Affairs Specialist

Washington State University and University of Washington have each been awarded a five-year, $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. As a partner in the Washington State University (WSU)-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) will receive $1.1 million to pretreat woody biomass for conversion to aviation fuel.

“This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively priced, American-made biofuels industry,” Vilsack said. “Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean-energy economy.”

NARA includes a broad consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories and private industry. The WSU-led grant aims to address the urgent national need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a new, viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste.  The project also will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics.

FPL research engineer JunYong Zhu will demonstrate his patent-pending technique, SPORL (Sulfite Pretreatment to Overcome Recalcitrance of Lignocellulose) in the NARA program. Zhu has successfully used SPORL on lodgepole pine woody biomass (juvenile wood with a high lignin content), but his contribution to NARA will be using SPORL on biomass of another softwood, Douglas-fir, grown by Weyerhaeuser.

SPORL was developed on the basis of sulfite pulping technology, which has been carried out at a large commercial scale for decades. By making use of existing equipment, processes, and knowledge of the pulp and paper industry, SPORL presents fewer technical barriers to building new plants or to retrofitting existing pulp mills to production of biofuels.  The process also reduces energy requirements and will address feedstock variability of bark, needles, and branches. This pretreatment process is an integral part of converting woody biomass to aviation fuel. The pretreated materials will be sent to Weyerhaeuser and Gevo for conversion to renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels, respectively.