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That’s what happened when Neivandt and colleague Joseph Genco teamed up to perfect a technique to make papermaking more efficient. By combining Genco’s expertise in pulp and paper science and Neivandt’s expertise in chemistry, they found a way to more effectively trap fine cellulose and filler particles in a forming sheet of paper, thereby decreasing cost and increasing profits for paper companies. UMaine licensed the technology to industry and collected royalties.
“David is quite intuitive,” Genco says. “You can give him a problem and he can tear it apart.”
Case in point: his recent groundbreaking solution for lignin, an age-old problem of the paper industry. Essentially, lignin is the glue that holds the various components of wood together, which is great if you’re a tree, but it gets in the way when you’re trying to make paper. So it is extracted in the pulping process, and the result is called black liquor, which most mills burn for fuel.
“Lignin is 30 percent of the tree that enters the mill, and that’s 30 percent going up the smokestack,” Neivandt says.
He and his research group have created a way to harness that 30 percent and turn it into a product with exponentially higher value: carbon nanofibers.
These fibers are known for strength, thermal and electrical conductivity, and the ability to store large amounts of gases, such as hydrogen. In the marketplace, they can fetch anywhere from $300 to several thousands of dollars per pound. Neivandt predicts that the material developed by his team — a nonwoven mat of fibers as opposed to discrete fibers — will be available at a lower price point than other carbon nanofibers on the market — a commodity rather than a specialty product — with many potential uses.
“This could open up new markets for lower-cost materials and new applications,” Neivandt says. “My hope is paper mills will take a stream of their black liquor, which may or may not need to be cleaned up, and use it as a feedstock for the creation of a value-added material.”