Nippon Paper Industries Co. plans to build a factory to mass produce a high-strength, low-weight material known as nanofiber as soon as next year, part of a push to bolster revenue as Japan’s shrinking population and the shift to online content threatens sales of newspapers and books.
“We are pinning our hopes on the material as our biggest growth potential,” said Masayuki Kawasaki, who heads Nippon Paper’s cellulose nanofiber business promotion office. Annual sales of products that use the plant fibers could amount to billions of dollars in 15 years, he said.
Cellulose nanofiber is five times stronger than steel and one-fifth the weight. Since it is derived from organic materials like wood or orange peel, it is plentiful and environmentally friendly. Applications could range from slowing the melting of soft-serve ice cream to smartphone screens, to replacing steel in car bodies. Japan’s trade ministry has said the market may be worth ¥1 trillion ($8.2 billion) by 2030.
The capacity of the nanofiber factory under consideration would be 10 times or more that of Nippon Paper’s existing pilot plant in the city of Iwakuni, which produces 30 metric tons of the material a year, Kawasaki said in an interview at the company’s Tokyo headquarters this week. The government-funded facility is running at full capacity after sales of Nippon Paper’s first commercial product, adult diapers, exceeded expectations after launching Oct. 1, he said without elaborating.
With the new facility, Nippon Paper would produce more diapers and may expand in food, cosmetics and packaged products. Should Nippon Paper finalize the decision by the end of March, the plant would become the first mass-production facility of its kind in the world, Kawasaki said. Mitsubishi Pencil Co. earlier this year released what it calls the world’s first commercial product using cellulose nanofiber, a $2 pen it sells in North America.
Bringing nanofibers into mass production highlights a broader move by Nippon Paper and its domestic peers to nurture new businesses to limit dependence on their traditional product. The company derives almost 80 percent of its sales from pulp and paper and is one of the nation’s top-two paper manufacturers along with Oji Holdings Corp.
Nippon Paper’s nanofiber diapers have proven to eliminate odors much more than conventional nappies, according to the company. The success has emboldened Nippon to think beyond the next stage of applications in groceries and consumer goods to industrial production, including autos.
For food and cosmetics, “cellulose nanofibers as additives can be used once safety is ensured, but the volumes are not very big,” Kawasaki said. “While technological hurdles are high and time is required, the auto market is attractive.”
As part of a bid to promote Japanese technology, Nippon Paper intends to be involved in building a prototype car made of cellulose nanofiber that could be unveiled at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, according to Kawasaki.