A Waterville-based chemical processing company is unveiling a new product it claims can save paper mills money by improving the papermaking process.
Cerealus Holdings LLC recently completed commercial trials on Cerenano – an additive it has developed in the University of Maine Process Development Center in Orono. Cerenano combined with a nascent technology creates stronger and better-quality paper and paperboard when added to the papermaking process, according to Tony Jabar, the company’s CEO. The product enhances the properties of nanocellulose – nano-sized wood fiber – providing a more efficient way to make paper.
“[Nanocellulose] delivers a new set of properties that papermakers can then begin using to make a product that is suitable for their application. They can even make products they couldn’t make before because of the unique properties nanocellulose brings,” Jabar said.
The use of nanocellulose in the papermaking industry is still in its infancy, but it shows promising results by making paper that is stronger, has a more uniform surface and is less costly to make, said Jabar. The market for nanocellulose is estimated to be $500 million in North America alone. If that market potential is realized, the market for Cerealus’ product could reach the same level, Jabar said.
John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, said the paper industry is watching closely the development of nanocellulose technology for use in the papermaking process.
“If this can be shown to work, it can offer a lot of promise to increase the diversity of products paper mills can make,” Williams said.
Maine’s paper manufacturing industry contributed $890 million to the state’s gross domestic product in 2011, the most recent year from which federal data are available – a far cry from the nearly $1.4 billion it contributed to the state’s GDP in 1997, before global competition shrank Maine’s market share.
Most of Maine’s mills produce coated paper used in magazines and catalogs. The mill in East Millinocket, once the largest paper mill in the world, produced primarily newsprint until Great Northern Paper shuttered it in January.
Jabar said some paper mills in Maine could improve their competitiveness by adopting nanocellulose technology.
“The short answer is: It’s possible. There will be some that will be able to take advantage of it and some that won’t,” he said. “It’s unlikely this will help a newsprint mill survive in this declining market.”
Currently, papermakers are restricted from using a high percentage of nanocellulose because it produces paper that’s too difficult to drain and dry, which has impeded widespread adoption, according to Jabar. By introducing Cerenano, papermakers will be able to use a higher percentage of nanocellulose and reap the benefits it brings to paper.
“So this gives nanocellulose a broader commercial market,” Jabar said.
Mike Bilodeau, director of UMaine’s Process Development Center, works with Cerealus as a chief scientific adviser. He did not respond to requests for an interview on Thursday, but in a statement provided by the company he said Cerenano “represents a significant break-through in the ability to leverage the unique properties of cellulose nanofibrils in paper and paperboard products,”
“Cellulose nanofibrils” is another term for nanocellulose. UMaine has developed a proprietary process that paper mills can license that will take wood fibers and turn them into nanocellulose at their mill site.
The successful commercial trials of Cerenano were held at “a New England paper mill,” Jabar said, declining to be more specific because of confidentiality. He said the trials are an important step to bringing Cerenano to market.
“The paper industry is mostly reticent to being the lead dog, if you will,” Jabar said. “Most people want you to come to them with a product or process that is fully vetted. Very few people want to be first in line. So now that we’ve vetted this product on a commercial scale, we can bring it to other mills and say, ‘Yes, we’ve run this commercially in other places successfully.’”
Jabar, a former chemistry teacher at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, founded Cerealus in 2004. It currently markets four products for use in the papermaking process; Cerenano will be its fifth. Since its launch, the company has received at least $500,000 from the Maine Technology Institute. It currently has four employees.
Jabar would not disclose revenue figures of his privately held company, though he said he expects revenue to increase at least 50 percent in the next five years. The company’s most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – a 2008 report on the private equity it raised – put the revenue at less than $1 million.
When asked if the company is profitable, Jabar said it would be this year. He said 2014 is shaping up to be “a big year for us.”
“We’re doing well,” Jabar said. “We survived almost 10 years now. While business growth is slow in the paper industry, it’s incremental. Each step is a big step for us.”
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at: