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28th June 2017, Kawanishi

New cellulose nanofibre masterbatches from Fuji

Kawanishi, Japan-headquartered Fuji Pigment reports the development of a new manufacturing process allowing it to make available masterbatches of cellulose nanofibres (CNFs) and various acrylic, polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene and poly vinyl chloride resins.  The company is also striving to produce CNF-based composites using other plastic materials such as PS, ABS etc. 

Considered a next-generation material – and a potentially low-cost alternative to carbon fibre for composites and other markets – CNFs are currently the subject of intensive development in Japan.

Cellulose nanofibre (CNF) composite with polyethylene (PE). © Fuji Pigment

Earlier this year, Tokyo-headquartered Nippon Paper installed the world’s largest facility of its kind for the commercial production of CNFs. Located at the company’s Ishinomaki Works in Miyagi Prefecture, the $16-million investment has an annual production capacity of 500 tons – significantly higher than the company’s annual 30-ton demonstration plant at the company’s Iwakuni Mill, started up in October 2013.

Another Japanese company, Oji Paper, started up a 40-ton pilot plant in the second half of 2016 to demonstrate an energy-efficient process for CNF manufacture. This technology is reported to produce CNFs with high transparency, broadening-out potential end-use applications.

And as Japan’s leading chemicals manufacturer, Asahi Kasei plans to start mass-producing CNF products by the end of 2020, after conducting trial production at its research lab in Nobeoka in Miyazaki. Trial production will start by the end of 2018, the company has said.

CNFs are derived from the cellulose that makes up the cell walls of plants and gives them their strength. As such, they weigh around one-fifth as much as steel but are three-to-five times stronger.

Cellulose nanofibres. © Fuji Pigment

Fuji Pigment’s CNFs are 4-20nm in width and several micrometres in length, with large aspect ratios. Their thermal expansion coefficient is low, comparable to that of glass fibre, but their elasticity modulus is higher, resulting in a hard, strong, and robust material when mixed with resins.

However, one of the problems with CNFs that is commonly encountered by researchers around the world is their high hydrophilicity, their numerous hydroxyl groups and the consequent large number of water molecules bound to them, which pose difficulties in mixing with most resins that are hydrophobic.

To address the above problems, Fuji Pigment has established its special manufacturing process for mixing and dispersing the CNFs in various types of resin, drawing on years of experience in nanosize particle dispersion technology. 

The CNF concentration in the masterbatch is currently 3-12 %, depending on the resin, but the company is working to produce mixtures with much higher concentrations. 

In addition to masterbatch, Fuji is also supplying CNFs for dispersion in water, as well as in various organic solvents such as alcohol, pyrrolidone, glycol ether-based solvents and butyl cellosolve. 

Dispersions in organic solvents based on ketones, hydrocarbons, and aromatic compounds are proving particularly difficult to produce, the company says, and remain an area of further development.

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