A natural alternative to plastic is coming to a product near you
Extremely efficient to use, bringing about improvements in several industries and products, giving industry a tool to enhance performance... and all of this from sustainably sourced trees. Microfibrillated cellulose, a remarkable natural material that can replace oil-based products in industries as diverse as construction, cosmetics and agriculture, is now entering commercialisation thanks to a pioneering EU and industry-funded project. Microfibrillated cellulose has arrived to out-compete additives from petrochemicals.
© Ole Martin Kristiansen, Borregaard, 2018
EXILVA, a flagship initiative funded by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and industry, is driving commercial uptake of the eponymous Exilva product, the worlds first microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) to be made available in commercial quantities.
Norwegian project coordinator Borregaards world-leading biorefinery in Sarpsborg now has the capacity to produce 1 000 metric tonnes of MFC, based on dry content, derived from the cellulose fibres of trees. The biorefinery is already enabling the use of MFC in the development of commercial products for personal care and cosmetics, paints and coatings, in construction, and as alternatives to oil-derived substances in agriculture. It is also supporting proof-of-concept studies for highly innovative products with unparalleled characteristics.
We are now working with over a thousand active commercial prospects worldwide and have a number of customers developing products that are benefitting from the better efficiency and performance of Exilva MFC compared to traditional substances, in addition to improvements in sustainability and environmental protection, says marketing manager Mats Hjørnevik.
Sourced entirely from sustainably grown Norway spruce (part if the pine family Picea abies) in Scandinavia, EXILVAMFC is produced through a unique process that extracts valuable organic substances from the wood. MFC is made from cellulose, the main component in plant cell walls that enables trees to grow stiff and strong. As part of the conversion process into a robust, light and versatile bio-product, the cellulose fibre is fibrillated, whereby fibres are split into many thinner fibres in a three-dimensional nano/microscale mesh. One of the main unique properties of the product comes from its very efficient ability to affect the flow of materials. The main characteristic creating this effect is due to the microfibres which split and rejoin during stress and shear forces.
When dry, Exilva can be seven to ten times stronger than steel and outperform Kevlar as a tough, durable fabric. When wet, Exilva flows like water when subjected to high pressures, for example in a compressed air paint sprayer, but as soon as the pressure is alleviated, the applied coating rapidly returns to its initial viscosity in little or no time. Paint, in effect, feels dry to the touch shortly after application, and by generating stronger film as it dries, Exilva improves the strength and robustness of coated products.
Potent substitute for oil-derived products
Exilva is also a powerful additive for stabilising liquids, creams and gels, with the extremely high surface area of the microfibres supporting novel, long-lasting, water-based formulations. It is being used to produce strong, flexible glues, adhesives and concrete additives as well as paints and coatings. And it is finding applications as a carrier for environmentally friendly pesticides and herbicides in agriculture, in personal care products such as hair conditioner, skin lotions and anti-wrinkle creams, and as a replacement for thin layers of plastic or aluminium in lightweight packaging materials.
Exilva technology is an enabler for the larger use of water-borne substances, substituting solvent-borne ones that are derived from oil-based alternatives. Its an environmentally friendly additive that provides a viable, sustainable, added-value alternative for many industries currently using petrochemical-based products, Hjørnevik says.
The Borregaard biorefinery is currently producing Exilva in a wider set of products: as a paste with 10 % dry content and a water-based dispersion with 2 % dry content, with production capacity of 10 000 and 50 000 metric tonnes respectively each year.
The project is working with partners across four other European countries as part of the BBI JU to support ongoing research, application development and drive commercial uptake.
Today, we are discovering a lot of new things and ways that Exilva is performing in new applications that we were previously unaware of, Hjørnevik says. This creates pathways for products with properties that have never been seen before.