Transforming paper

black and white image of magnified paper with nanocellulose added (right) and without nanocellulose (left).
Magnified paper made from old corrugated container with nanocellulose added to the surface (right) and without (left).

As nanocellulose is commonly extracted from wood pulp fibers, some of the earliest applications have involved nanocelluose in papermaking – both adding the material to the furnish (the raw materials used for papermaking in liquid form), as well as adding it to the top of the sheet.

Researchers and companies have found that the addition of nanocellulose increases the strength of the paper. This has allowed some companies to remove a small amount of fiber, yet maintain performance. Nanocellulose can be produced on site at a paper manufacturer, using their source material. It’s not about using less fiber, but making better us of the fiber that is already there.

When adding a small amount (less than six grams per square meter) of UMaine cellulose nanofiber (a type of nanocellulose) to the surface of paper, dramatic improvements can be seen in the porosity. Using traditional industry paper tests, air porosity decreases by orders of magnitude. Researchers at companies and at UMaine are investigating how these top-layer or surface applications can be used to introduce new paper grades with improved barrier properties, with the goal of competing with plastics.