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A Paper Company’s Salvation: A Wood-Based Product That’s Stronger Than Steel

Responsible paper company Domtar is seeing its market evaporate. Instead of holding on to what paper used to be, it’s finding new uses for pulped wood–everything from car parts to bone replacements.

A Paper Company’s Salvation: A Wood-Based Product That’s Stronger Than Steel
Flickr user Jeff Power

The paper industry is in trouble. Many of us read our news and books on screens, which is good news for trees but not so great for paper manufacturers. Domtar, a paper company focused on environmental responsibility (Steve Jobs’s biography was printed on Domtar paper), isn’t content to watch helplessly as the market for its core product declines at a rate of 4% each year. Instead, the company is teaming up with FP Innovations to create an entirely new tree-based product that can be used in everything from car parts to printed paper electronics.

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The joint venture, dubbed CelluForce, will produce NanoCrystalline Cellulose (NCC)–a fancy name for the material that makes trees so strong. NCC is extracted from wood fiber at the nano level and manufactured into a usable product at CelluForce’s recently opened plant in Quebec. “You start with dry pulp, react it with certain chemicals, filter it, dry it, and the end product is a powder,” explains Jean Moreau, President and CEO of CelluForce.

FP Innovations sent us a sample of the stuff–iridescent film encased in a frame–and it doesn’t look like much (see picture above). The material is smooth to the touch and appears to be flimsy. It didn’t take much to break a piece of it in half. But our small sample isn’t representative of NCC’s strength when used for real-world applications. “We claim that we have a material that’s stronger than stainless steel,” says Moreau.

There are four main applications for the ultra-strong, impermeable material: coatings (i.e. paints, wood varnish, or anything else where you need to protect a material), textiles, protective films, and composites, such as car parts or biocomposite bone replacements. NCC also blocks infrared light from passing through it–so it could be used to make glass opaque. The opaque glass could in turn be used to make windows that reduce heat penetration. And that means less of a need for building residents to turn on air conditioning during hot days.

Moreau won’t say how much NCC will sell for, but it’s probably not cheap. “It’s not a commodity material, it’s a specialty material,” he says. The material doesn’t really have any competition in the environmental arena; similarly strong nano materials–like petroleum-derived carbon nanotubes–are thought to be toxic to humans. NCC is recyclable, renewable, and compostable.

Unsurprisingly, CelluForce is in talks with over 65 companies interested in acquiring NCC. The just-opened CelluForce plant is more of a demonstration facility. Large-scale plants will open within two to three years.

And Domtar? The paper company may have just found a way to survive the downward spiral of print.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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