Cellulotech, a Canadian materials science company, claims to have developed a certified food contact process that makes paper products resistant to water, grease, oxygen and steam — all with no impact on recycling and composition. To find out more about this potential alternative to plastic paints, candles, and PFAS, we spoke with the company’s founder and CEO, Romain Metivet.
Can you submit your innovation to us?
Chromatography is a green chemical reaction that grafts long-chain fatty acids onto various substrates such as paper, starch, PVOH, metals, etc. to make them highly water-resistant while maintaining their biodegradable and compostable properties.
Besides strong and permanent barriers and its environmental advantages, the process is very cost competitive. We use less than 2 mg of reagent per square meter of specified surface area. Then 20mg is needed for a substrate with 10 square meters of specific surface area per geometric square metre. One kilogram of this reagent costs less than 10 euros, so the input cost per square meter ends up with less than 0.02 cents. Hard to find anything more competitive.
The important thing to understand is that it is completely different from paint – it is a chemical reaction. We do not add a layer of characteristic material on the surface of the substrate, but rather generate permanent ester bonds over its entire specific surface area. Chromatized products are monomers, not compounds, and as such, cannot be changed by stirring or cutting.
The contact angles are well above 90 degrees (in some cases, they may reach 180 degrees) which completely prevents any capillary uptake. These ester bonds are essentially permanent, and paper processed two decades ago still shows the same properties today as then.
Chromatogeny has the potential not only to solve many of the problems facing the packaging industry in terms of costs and sustainability, but also to expand the use of paper in other industries. Our planet is a giant bio-factory of cellulose, and our core belief is that we should use it as much as possible in our economy.
What is the story of the invention and marketing of the solution?
Over a hundred years ago, it was discovered that paper can be hydrophobic using long-chain fatty acids. However, this process involved a solvent, complicated terms, and used to take days.
Twenty-five years ago, Cellulotech’s chief scientist, Daniel Samin, discovered a new, solvent-free green chemical process that was able to do this faster and called it chromatogeny. Since then, the environmental and barrier properties of this technology have been well studied and even published in peer-reviewed journals. However, it may have been too early, and the first pilot developed over a decade ago fell short in terms of speed and efficiency which, in our opinion, have limited the adoption of this technology, until now.
Two years ago, Cellulotech was founded to start from a blank page and develop a scalable process. Instead of taking a traditional or traditional paper engineering approach, we’ve taken a chemical engineering approach. The new process we developed makes the reaction time from a few seconds to just 0.1 seconds. Since the yield of vaccination is also increased, we can use less reagent and solve other problems encountered in the past. Moreover, we are not limited by roll to roll approach and can also fully process corrugated board sheets and some 3D shapes.
We have patented this new process and intend to license it as well as produce some materials for specialized applications. We are currently finalizing our industrial pilot plans with several partners in order to demonstrate the scalability of this solution.
Overall, what are the main applications of Cellulotech, and what sets it apart from traditional alternatives?
The applications are very diverse because this chemistry can present a wide range of barriers and strengths that provide us with the ability to improve the performance/cost ratio. In fact, we discover new applications a lot. I will mention the most important things we focus on so far.
In food packaging, grafted PVOH can replace polyethylene coating in single-use food packaging such as paper cups, as well as dispose of PFAS. It is already approved for food contact in some jurisdictions.
For non-food packaging, since we see a huge demand for ‘paper’, grafted paper offers great durable properties that can help switch from plastic wraps like those we see for paper towels or toilet paper for example or use for all kind of e-commerce packaging Plastic free. Frozen food grafted cardboard is also a big potential market for us.
Being able to make corrugated board very waterproof is very interesting because it can help save some pulp but also shed things like paraffin for tough applications. It also opens a new world of possibilities for this great material in construction or manufacturing. There is also the possibility of labeling, as the grafted PVOH can be used as a salvageable release paper.
In general, chromatography also has the ability to eliminate the phenomenon of “crawl” during storage that wastes huge amounts of packaging materials and merchandise every year.
Other than packaging, because the grafted paper behaves like “gore-tex”, we’ve shown that it can be used to make 100% paper face masks or offer oil selective absorption to remove oil spills for example. We also screen applications with textiles and wood. It’s a whole new world of bioproducts opening up before us and that’s very exciting.
Let’s talk about end of life – does the material affect the recyclability of the material it is applied to? Will the covered paper packaging still be recyclable within the current waste paper streams?
Due to the process and the small amount of reagent used, any initially moderately compostable substrate will still be compostable and compostable after grafting into existing waste streams. Moreover, the grafted molecules are esters of fatty acids, which is a completely natural thing that we find around us completely harmless to the environment.
What does the future hold for Cellulotech?
As of now, our goal is to terminate our partnerships and fund our pilot program. As it is being built, we will continue to work on product development projects with various institutional and academic partners and will continue to develop our intellectual property portfolio, particularly with regard to new pillars and applications.
Once the pilot is ready and operating at 500 meters per minute or more, scalability will be demonstrated and we will be able to begin producing specialized bio-products, conduct larger testing and begin licensing this technology. We expect our devices to be commercially available within 2-3 years.