Out of the box
Paper - the construction material of the future
At the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, Professor Markus Biesalski conducts research into macromolecular chemistry and paper chemistry. His objective is to extend the functionality of paper to give it new specific properties depending on application.
Professor Biesalski, as a scientist you are involved in altering the structure of paper. What deficits do you want to offset by doing so and what benefits do you want to extend?
Due to its composition, paper has a whole raft of very exciting inherent advantages, mainly of a mechanical nature. It is extremely tear-resistant, very light and not very dense compared with other materials. Even just a little bit of moisture can impair its characteristics, but this can be countered using existing wet strength additives or waterproof coatings. With the help of bio based coating materials made of polymers, known as macromolecules, we are trying to systematically find new approaches to increase the use of additives from renewable raw materials in paper.
What application areas are you targeting with these papers?
In Darmstadt, for example, we are working on two larger projects, the results of which are intended to allow us to use paper to an even greater extent as a lightweight construction material in building applications. One of the challenges in this conjunction is to gain a sound understanding of how the bond between paper fibers and a lightweight matrix of plastic, glass or mineral materials can be improved with bio-based polymer additives.
Does functionally improved paper have the potential to become a base material like plastic used across industries?
Yes. Paper and lightweight paper construction materials can play a major role in the future. To achieve this, we need to manage to control specific paper properties in such a way as to retain the described mechanical properties while ensuring the re usability of the products either through recycling or cascade utilization. If this happens, then I think there is a possibility that in many areas we will see materials that can play an important role across industries. In the case of food packaging, this kind of trend is already very much in evidence right now. But in the future, I can very well imagine paper also being used in sports equipment, rowing boats or even bicycles, for a large range of components in the automobile sector and in architecture.
How important could these new paper applications be economically?
If we solve a few of the really big problems, this could definitely result in significant economic growth for the paper industry. If we manage to develop paper fibers with thermoelastic and thermoplastic properties, then molding and shaping processes will be possible in the same way they are for plastics or metals. If we tap into these completely new kinds of applications, then I envisage other exciting opportunities apart from those mentioned above.
Does recycling have to be part of the concept?
It is actually the most important part, where paper in particular offers many advantages over other materials. Because in the future we will need to press ahead with CO2-neutral, i.e., climate-neutral, processes to an increasingly greater extent, our research is already taking account of the need for recycling capacity or the possibility of being able to continue to use materials in another form at the end of their lifetime.
You are already talking to paper producers about paper with extended functionality. What has the response been like?
It’s been broadly positive. So that we don’t lose any time in implementing research results, there needs to be a concerted collaboration between industry and universities. And this is something that both sides have acknowledged.