American Process nabs foundational nanocellulose patent: is the wonder-material finally, affordably here?

nanocelluloseFrom Georgia, we received the news that U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted a 25th patent to American Process — this one is a doozy. It covers API’s process for producing a nanocellulose material, as well as many downstream applications using the nanocellulose.

The process includes fractionating a biomass feedstock with an acid, a solvent for lignin, and water, to generate cellulose-rich solids; and then mechanically treating the cellulose-rich solids with a relatively low amount of energy to form cellulose nanofibrils or nanocrystals.

OK, so what exactly is nanocellulose, again. Get on your “futuristic materials” hat, we’re going for a ride. Think of a material that is stronger than Kevlar but as superabsorbent as Pampers. That’s nanocellulose. Made from wood, its properties have been known for a long time.  To date, though, there hasn’t been much in the way of commercial-scale production owing to cost issues. Plus, processes that could make it generally could only make one type of morphology and surface functionalization.

A technical station-break

We’ll issue a quick jargon alarm to relay some important information to the technical community. This process produces nanocrystalline cellulose, or fibrils, or a mix of the two, and in both hydrophylic and hydrophobic forms. And, think “exceptionally low cost”.

What can you do with nanocellulose?

It’s a wonder material, all right. There are applications in food (as a thickener), as a replacement for glass fiber in making strong but light-weighted cars and, frankly, in reinforcing any tyupe of plastic. You see, it’s much lighter than glass fiber. It’s as stiff as Kevlar (and beats glass fiber), and has a tensile strength comparable to aluminium. Overall, it’s strenth to weight ratio is eight times that of stainless steel. Yet, it acts like a gel, can flow when you shake it, can be used in high-performance foams and can keep oxygen out of materials packaged with PLA, thereby contributing to shelf-life.

If Peter Parker had been looking around for a bio-based material for his Spider-Man gig, he could hardly have come up with anything better. Plus, you have all the attributes of renewability.

As we mentioned above, the barrier for wonder materials is usually that they can be produced only in a lab-setting under ideal circumstances and have prohibitive cost.

That’s why producing nanocellulose out of API’s AVAP process is such a big deal. You see, AVAP can be used to produce ethanol in bulk quantities from wood cellulose. So, here’s a high-value product to go along with the bulk quantities of fuel. Plus, with AVAP running at some scale in Thomaston, Georgia — with plans to introduce it at commercial-scale soon enough — manufacturers are getting enough samples to be able to develop robust applications.

“itt’s all related to AVAP base technology,” lead process inventor Kim Nelson told The Digest in an exclusive interview. “”And, it’s highly tunable. We have learned to tune the reaction conditions to produce crystals or fibrils or the mixture. And, with our nanocellulose we see significantly improved rheaology and viscosity.” In English, think flow, and thickness or stickiness. It’s can make any high-viscosity product less expensive — from cosmetics now to ketchup somewhere down the line when the FDA completes the usual evaluations.

Why does nanocellose work? What’s the magic?

“It’s all about the crystalline regions of cellulose,” Nelson explained. “The crystalline regions can’t be broken down in wood; it can be up to 25% of a tree, and it’s what

makes a tree stand for 5000 years. So, it’s useful in applications such as body armor for the same reasons. Or, in vehicle lightweighting – one of our partners has achieved the same strength as reinforced 20% glass fiber, at lower mix rates, and a much lighter material.”

How does that translate into energy savings

“The common stat is that for every 10 percent weight reduction you gain 7% fuels efficiency,” Nelson told The Digest. “And, the DOE has a programmatic goal of reducing energy in transport by 50% by 2050.”

Progress towards scale

In April of this year we started up Bioplus demo line at AVAP in Thomaston,” API’s Kim Nelson told The Digest. She’s the lead investor of the process. “Now, we’re sellling the materials to 100 different companies and universities, and getting close to seeing close to launch commercial projects. Certainly in the next two years we’ll see a commercial-scale launch.

Applications

“We do some applications that we develop in-house, and we work in partnership as a technical consultant to use for their application, and some choose to develop on their own,” Nelson said.

Reaction from API headquarters

“This milestone underscores API’s culture of biorefinery innovation in service to our planet. Our BioPlus Nanocellulose has conquered the major commercial barriers that have hitherto inhibited rapid market development. Specifically, BioPlus nanocellulose materials are cost competitive with traditional materials; they can be produced as a powder and we have introduced novel lignin-coated nanocellulose, both crystals and fibrils, that are oleophilic and compatible with plastic applications. We are currently focusing development of market applications ranging from packaging to transportation lightweighting and rheological modifiers,” reflected Dr. Theodora Retsina, API’s CEO.

More on the story.

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