A consortium made up of companes, research institutes and consultants has embarked upon an ambitious flagship project to introduce a plant-based cellulose “ten-times as strong as steel” into widespread use that could one day replace fossil fuel-based alternatives.
Known now as the Exilva project, the consortium has been working on microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) since 2012 and now has a facility that enables it to produce it on an industrial scale – a crucial moment for any bio-economy development. Four years later in 2016, the Exilva consortium was given a major boost by joining up with Bio-Based Industries Join Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium focused on developing the European bio-based economy. BBI JU’s raison d'être is to develop bio-refining technologies that can sustainably transform renewable and natural resources into bio-based products, materials and fuels; Exilva is confident that with BBI JU’s influence – and access to its €3.7bn budget – the Europe-wide partnership will act as a catalyst for the next stages of development.
To give some more details about Exilva, its project coordinator, Jarle Wikeby, and marketing manager, Mats Hjørnevik, of Borregaard, the company behind this particular variety of MFC, spoke exclusively with Dave Songer from Bio-Based World News.
“I think the support the BBI JU brings is a key risk mitigator in processes,” explains Hjørnevik [left]. “With the EU showing that they really stand behind us, and truly mean it when they say they want to support more sustainable technologies. That’s key for companies like us to be able to succeed.”
Wikeby [right] agrees that the stability BBI JU brings to the Exilva project has been of great help and has reduced the perceived risk of investing in this type of activity a factor he says is one of the biggest problems for projects of this nature. “For Exilva, the backing of an organisation the size of BBI JU has strengthened our confidence in the project and boosted support from our board.”
The product itself stands up in laboratory tests, says Hjørnevik. “There are scientists whom agree that if you dry this product then it becomes seven to ten-times as strong as steel. I think all these functionalities are going to make this product very interesting in a lot of areas,” Hjørnevik predicts.
MFC is suitable for a huge number of applications and works as a stabilising agent in products ranging from personal care, cosmetics and home care, to adhesives, sealants, and resins. It’s also robust, and is used as a strengthening additive thanks to properties that, when set, make it stronger than Kevlar. Those areas weren’t always clear from the outset, though, explains Wikeby, who makes it clear that since the partnership with BBI JU commenced, the project team’s knowledge and understanding has increased significantly.
“We now see more effects of the product that we did two years ago. There are a lot of new things and ways that the product is performing in new applications that we were not aware of,” such as MFC’s capability to improve the rheology of paint.
The work Exilva has put in has certainly made a good impression with companies on the production side. One of those that is now part of the Exilva project is household name Unilever, joined by partners from across industry and academia in Greece, Norway, Sweden and France: CHIMAR, OSTFOLDFORSKNING, Royal Institute of Technology and Ayming. “I see Unilever as a very innovative company. I think that’s why they’re interested in taking closer looks at these types of technologies,” says Hjørnevik. “Having them as a partner is very important to us in order to get a solid foundation.”
Making the wider world aware about what Exilva does is “the most difficult challenge” says Wikeby, and he is appreciative of how BBI JU is helping the consortium do that. However, it’s not just marketability where BBI JU really adds value. It’s something much less tangible: time management. “I think the timelines and deadlines have also been very helpful for us to have a good pace and speed on the project. In one way it does put pressure on us but it is good pressure that I like very much.
“It makes you achieve what you need to achieve. We’ve grown to understand how the logical way that the EU members think, which I’m particularly happy with,” he concludes.
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