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Nippon Paper seeks head start in cellulose nanofiber production

A Nippon Paper employee inspects a beaker containing cellulose nanofibers.

TOKYO -- Nippon Paper Industries is building a production facility for cellulose nanofiber, with an eye toward tapping demand for use as an additive in food and cosmetics.

Cellulose nanofiber is a light, strong plant-derived material that is tipped to replace carbon fiber. But it can be used as an additive to give food and cosmetics stickiness as well. Compared with other similar additives, cellulose fiber-based versions are affected less by the heat. Another selling point is that it has a smoother feeling on the skin.

The Japanese papermaker will spend over 1 billion yen ($9.96 million) constructing the facility with an annual output capacity of 30 tons at its Gotsu Mill in Shimane Prefecture. Production is slated to begin September 2017. The company may eventually expand output at the facility to 100 tons a year.

The company also plans to develop a technology to reduce the amount of liquid contained in the material, which will allow for cheaper transportation.

Nippon Paper will be the first company to build a cellulose nanofiber plant in Japan focused on food and cosmetics applications. It hopes to attract clients through an early adoption of mass-production capacity. The company is also looking to branch out to automotive uses in the future.

Material of the future

Cellulose nanofibers are made by physically or chemically breaking down wood and other plant pulp into microscopic particles. The material weighs just one-fifth as much as steel, but is believed to be at least five times as strong. The strong and lightweight material is often considered a more sustainable alternative to carbon fibers, which are made from petroleum.

The cellulose fiber has other unique traits, such as its viscosity, transparency and airtightness The material is expected to have a wide range of applications from reinforcing plastics to use in cosmetics and food, and has piqued the interest of many Japanese papermakers facing a shrinking domestic market.

One of its biggest potential applications is in the auto industry, since strong, light materials boost fuel efficiency. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry aims to turn the new material into a 1 trillion-yen industry by 2030, and considers capturing auto-related demand a crucial step toward that goal.

It is said to cost at least several thousand yen to produce 1kg of cellulose nanofiber today. The ministry is looking to lower the amount to the 1,000-yen range by 2020. Developing a wide rage of applications is crucial for slashing costs to such a level.

(Nikkei)

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