The publishing industry is changing–today, you could spend all day reading on a screen and never touch a piece of paper. That worries paper companies (demand for paper has been declining every year) but it shouldn’t. A super-strong material made out of processed wood pulp–nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC)–is versatile enough to make computer components, lightweight body armor, flexible electronic displays, and even bone replacements. And now it’s produced in the U.S.
This past summer, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory opened a $1.7 million facility to produce NCC in Madison, Wisconsin. This is the first step toward accommodating what will be a $600 billion industry for renewable wood nanomaterials by 2020, according to New Scientist.
We first wrote about NCC earlier this year, when paper company Domtar opened a demonstration production facility in Quebec as part of a joint venture, dubbed CelluForce, with FP Innovations. Jean Moreau, president and CEO of CelluForce, explained the production process: “You start with dry pulp, react it with certain chemicals, filter it, dry it, and the end product is a powder.”
I had the chance to touch a sample of the stuff, which easily tore apart in my hands. But the sample was just a tiny sliver of NCC; in real-world applications, Domtar claims that it’s stronger than steel. And unlike steel, NCC can be found everywhere around us–not just in trees, but in branches, twigs, and sawdust.
Once NCC production gets going, the material will be everywhere: replacing plastic parts in cars, creating impermeable coatings (i.e. wood varnish), generating biocomposite bone replacements, making glass opaque (it blocks infrared light), and more.
Paper companies just got a whole lot important–if they’re willing to look beyond paper.