Making plastic from wood

GEA has developed a way of transforming cellulose fibers from wood pulp into plastic. This novel process, which uses the company’s market-leading and energy-efficient NanoVALVE™ technology, produces a raw material that is both strong and environmentally sustainable.

Paper producers have been looking for new applications for cellulose pulp from wood, other than the traditional paper and cardboard. However, it is a very tough and difficult material to process.

In response, Dr. Silvia Grasselli, GEA’s Innovation Manager and Head of the Innovation & Technology Center in Parma, has found a way of treating nanofibre cellulose. In collaboration with the technical department, it involved adapting one of the company’s high pressure homogenizers, normally used in the food, beverage, dairy and pharmaceutical industries, to process the pulp.

The unit, which has the capability of producing 14,000 liters an hour, was tested in partnership with a customer in Finland. “This gave us the opportunity to learn and improve,” she explains. “At first we were using a very high pressure, which consumed a lot of energy. We then introduced the NanoVALVE HP™ which allowed us to reduce the pressure drastically and therefore save the energy used, and the unit still operated effectively.

“Processing nanofibre cellulose creates a new material that can be used as a plastic substitute. It has all the physical characteristics of plastic but it is natural and therefore better for the environment.”

This novel application won a GEA Award for Innovation and marked a proud moment for Silvia. She has been with the company for more than 20 years, starting as a laboratory assistant. In 2007 she was appointed Innovation Manager and she is also responsible for the Innovation & Technology Center.

Silvia sits on an Innovation Committee, which includes the Managing Director, Sales Manager, COO, After Sales Manager and Technical Manager. It meets to discuss all new ideas and to prioritize the ones for further development.

Following the success of the nanofibre cellulose application, she is now focusing on complementary technology, involving the use of ultrasound. The project, still in its infancy, involves working with two Italian universities.

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