Cellulose nanocrystals? It’s not pulp fiction

McGill spinoff uses natural polymer to create products for a broad range of industries and applications, from cosmetics to concrete
The carboxylated crystalline nano-cellulose created by researchers in McGill’s Department of Chemistry can be used in the cosmetics industry as a replacement for plastic and silica microbeads, which are found in almost every personal care and cosmetic product

Wood chips, it must be admitted, are not the most glamorous material around. Scattered in gardens or lining the cages of household pets, it is a commodity that attracts little attention. Luckily, a team of researchers in McGill’s Department of Chemistry developed a method to create carboxylated crystalline nano-cellulose using this often-ignored by-product of the pulp and paper industry. This super material has the potential to dramatically alter not just one, but multiple industries.

Following their discovery, Professor Mark Andrews and lead inventor, Tim Morse with two other McGill post docs launched a spin-off company called Anomera in 2016. Since then, the company has grown and now boasts 17 employees (including 12 employees with advanced degrees). They are also in the process of constructing a new manufacturing facility in Temiscaming, Quebec that will enable them to increase their output from mere kilograms per day to over 1 tonne.

Industry and consumer applications for the wonder-product include:

  • Cosmetics as a replacement for plastic and silica microbeads, which are found in almost every personal care and cosmetic product.
  • Composites where adding less than 1% of cellulose nanocrystals can enhance polyurethane, adhesives and coatings.
  • Concrete which can see remarkable increases to its flexural strength with the addition of 0.1% cellulose nanocrystals, yielding the potential to develop advanced concrete products.

But the benefits of the nano-crystalline are not only derived from its ability to enhance or replace existing feeder materials. It is also produced in a completely green fashion, using renewable hydropower and derived from boreal forest in Abitibi, Quebec that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being sustainably grown.

Consumer pressure on companies to be more earth friendly

In 2018, Anomera added current CEO and President, Howard Fields as their executive. He has been instrumental in driving the company to finding new applications and new customers. “Industries around the world have been calling for the replacement of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and improvements to replace petrochemical based, energy demanding products,” he explains in an interview in their corporate offices located across from McGill University. “This has been driven by consumers who demand that companies become more earth friendly and energy conscientious. Our new Specialty Materials Facility will enable us to provide thousands of tonnes of our product to industry, beginning with the personal care and cosmetic sector.”

One of Anomera’s unique IP’s involves colour and their patented ability to combine dyes on the nanocrystal using only electrostatic and hydrogen bonds and thereby producing a full spectrum of colours on a molecular basis. This research is currently underway at Andrews’s lab at McGill and sponsored by a grant from the Quebec Ministry of Economy and Innovation, and Anomera. The commercialization of this product called ChromaPur is broad-ranging, and provides synergistic benefits of Anomera’s microbead technology with pigments. The company envisions developing projects ranging from pharmaceuticals to seed coatings, as well as applications in cosmetics.

As part of the spin-off from McGill, Anomera maintains a unique tie and appreciation of its roots. CEO Fields comments: ”Our relationship with McGill’s Innovation and Partnerships office headed by Prof. Sylvain Coulombe and Dr. Mark Weber, combined with cooperation of Prof. Dima Perepichka, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, is key in our success as a young R&D company. We would not be here without them.”