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Reinventing Paper

A new material with great potential: paper that's just as strong as iron could be a game-changer for many industries.

The Paper Industry Innovation Center of Ehime University is involved in cutting-edge research on paper.

Cellulose nanofiber, or CNF, is a new material derived from paper. It's produced by reducing the size of the pulp fibers that make up paper to nano-levels.

Striking a CNF plate with a hammer gives a good idea of just how hard it is. Normally, paper rips easily as the fibers are only loosely joined. But bringing down the size of the fibers to nano levels causes them to bind tightly together, giving paper the strength of iron.

"It's like a dream material," says Ehime University Professor Hiromi Uchimura. "The potential is huge as it could be turned into things that could take the place of various petroleum-derived products."

Researchers are looking at ways to use CNF in auto production. Professor Hiroyuki Yano of Kyoto University is working on a plastic reinforced by nanofiber for vehicle bodies. That would reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency.

He is now studying ways to use nanofiber to strengthen tires. The rubber used in tires contains carbon as a hardener. This enables tires to withstand the weight of the vehicle. Research has found that adding nanofiber can reduce the weight of the rubber by 20% without affecting its strength.

Yano wants to build a car equipped with parts and tires that use CNF in 3 years. "I want to help develop industries by creating highly advanced materials using domestic resources. It's not just a dream," he says.

A paper company is aiming to develop products that take advantage of one of the characteristics of CNF -- its ability to block oxygen.

Japan's 3rd largest paper company, Daio Paper, is making nanofiber sheets to produce wrapping materials that can preserve food. The company used special equipment to measure the amount of oxygen that passed through a nanofiber sheet. Oxygen was able to pass through plastic food storage bags, but not the nanofiber sheet.

The company plans to start selling bags made from nanofiber sheets for food and medicine in a few years.

"Demand for paper is falling due to the increasing use of IT products," says Junya Ookawa, Deputy Section Manager at the company. "Our company hopes its research will be able to save the paper industry."

Cellulose nanofiber is made from plants. The material of the future developed from domestic resources could have a big impact on Japan's manufacturing industry.

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