Business / Tech | ADVANCES IN PROGRESS

Japan pins tech hopes on game-changing nanofiber

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Carbon fiber may often be dubbed the next-generation material, but it’s another product — cellulose nanofiber — that is increasingly attracting attention among manufacturers.

A low-weight, high-strength material, cellulose nanofiber has potential use in a wide range of products, including auto parts, food packaging, clothing, cosmetics and inks.

Recognizing this, and in light of the nation’s existing forest farming industry, the government is promoting the material whose market is expected to reach ¥1 trillion annually in Japan by 2030.

So what is cellulose nanofiber? A wood-derived fiber, it is essentially made by pulping wood fibers to a nano level of several hundredths of a micron and smaller, or about 10,000 times thinner than human hair.

The result is an ultra-fine fiber that is light but strong — it is said to be about five times stronger than iron but one-fifth its weight.

Utilizing this feature, backers of the product say it could slash the weight of vehicles if it is used for auto parts, making for a lighter, more energy-efficient — and environmentally friendly — car.

“Auto parts contain quite a lot of plastics. If we can replace (some plastics) with cellulose nanofiber, that could help cut some carbon dioxide emissions,” said Satoshi Hirata, secretary-general of Nanocellulose Forum, a consortium for cellulose nanofiber-related firms, researchers, organizations and municipalities.

However, nano-scale fiber also has a high oxygen blocking property and can be made into a transparent material, making it useful for food packaging. It also has cosmetic applications, as it’s water retentive and nonsticky.

And unlike plastic, which is made from the world’s limited petroleum stocks, cellulose nanofiber is also a renewable material.

Japan has about 25 million hectares of forest, both natural and farmed, which covers roughly 70 percent of the country.

The main manufacturers of cellulose nanofiber here are paper makers, including Nippon Paper Industries Co. and Oji Holdings Corp., which are set to increase production in coming years.

Oji Holdings plans to launch a pilot plant that will be able to manufacture 40 tons of cellulose nanofiber annually by the second half of fiscal 2016.

But production costs still need come down, Hirata said, adding that cellulose nanofiber will be mixed mostly with other materials instead of being used in its pure form.

The one exception may be thin film, which could be made with pure cellulose nanofiber, he said.

Last October, Nippon Paper started selling diapers partially made with cellulose nanofiber and which incorporate antibacterial and deodorant materials.

Also, Mitsubishi Pencil is now selling pens overseas with ink that contains cellulose nanofiber, while the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, a semipublic research body, is developing shoes using cellulose nanofiber to take advantage of its light weight. The project is a collaboration with the Hyogo Prefectural Institute of Technology, Asics Corp. and Shinei Kako Co.

“The market for cellulose nanofiber products is about to be established,” said Hirata. “Researchers and firms are looking to find various ways to use cellulose nanofiber. A technology to develop the material has been established, so the focus has shifted to its usage.”

Asked if cellulose nanofiber and carbon fiber will compete for market share, Hirata said they are likely to co-exist.

Carbon fiber is a better quality material, but it is more expensive to produce than cellulose nanofiber, he said.

He said he believed manufacturers will use cellulose nanofiber when they need a fine material that is cheaper than carbon fiber.

In a growth strategy paper released in 2014, the central government said it would promote the material as part of measures to revitalize Japan’s forestry industry, which has stagnated as a result of competition from cheaper wood imports. In 1980, some 146,000 people worked in the industry, but this declined to 51,200 in 2010. Industry production, meanwhile, plummeted to ¥430 billion in 2013 from ¥1.2 trillion in 1980.

Hirata said Japan’s Nanocellulose Forum consortium worked as a platform for people in the industry to communicate and also provide information for those interested in the material. The consortium had 298 members as of April 8.

As a result, Japanese cellulose nanofiber manufacturers and firms that want to use the material have been communicating closely, with Japan now one of the leading countries, along with Sweden and Finland, in research and development of the material.

“Cellulose nanofiber has spread to various industries. I think that’s Japan’s advantage,” Hirata said.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, or on the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.