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INCOM Report Summary

Project ID: 608746
Funded under: FP7-NMP
Country: Finland

Periodic Report Summary 2 - INCOM (Industrial Production Processes for Nanoreinforced Composite Structures)

Project Context and Objectives:
The objective of the INCOM project is to develop techno-economically viable solutions and production methods for lightweight structures based on advanced sustainable materials for use in packaging, vehicles and aeronautical applications.
The main modules of the INCOM project are
• Nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) production and modification process
• Composites processing and sandwich structure manufacturing
• Mechanical testing, verification and modelling
• Life cycle assessment
The core of the project is the manufacturing and modification of nanofibrillated cellulose. Two approaches are used in manufacturing and modification of NFC. The first approach is the fibrillation of cellulose in a pre-polymer (monomer or oligomer) medium. In the second approach (fibrillation in mainly aqueous media) the development of a tool for quality quantification as well as the optimization of the fibrillation of bioresidues is in target. Resin with functionalised nano-reinforcement namely functionalised NFC, is being produced and used in both the core and the skin of structural sandwich composites.
NFC reinforced resins are used to manufacture light weight composites and components for sandwich structures to be used in e.g. sporting goods and vehicles. For composite sandwich structures, three types of cores are being developed: an expanded NFC reinforced biobased PU foam core, a biobased thermoplastic foam core and a thermoplastic honeycomb core. The reinforced foamed cores are produced using chemical and physical blowing agents, resulting in low density (<50 kg/m3) foams with high compression strength. The nano-reinforced polymer or hybrid coating is also used to strengthen the cell walls of a thermoplastic honeycomb core, targeting improvements in its mechanical performance. Particular focus is being given to rapid cure processes necessary to cure the coatings as well as inline production of the sandwich structure to increase the efficiency of the manufacture of these composite structures. The nano-reinforced coating will also be used for coating the expanded thermoplastic core and webs. Industrially viable production methods for lightweight composite structures are being developed and transferred to industrial scale.
During the development process an ecodesign approach will be used by utilising LCA from the early stages right through to the end of the project. This will ensure that a path of reduced environmental impact will be followed during the development of these new industrial processes for nanocellulose reinforced composites.

Project Results:
The process of NFC production using bead milling has been developed to fit the milling of cellulose fibres in monomers, sol-gel dispersion or solvents. In the Masuko grinding, the mechanical, morphological, rheological and optical scattering behavior has been characterized to assess the degree of fibrillation. In the development of tools to assess the fibrillation process, a relationship between the viscosity and the strength of the network in dry state has been established. The relation from online viscosity measurements can be used for prediction of the energy necessary to reach the maximum network strength. The pilot implementation of the NFC production and upscaling evaluation has been performed with the industrial partners.
The work for low density structures is focused on development of methods to produce expanded cores for the use in lightweight sandwich panels. Lightweight (<50 kg/m3) bio-based PLA and bio-PU foams were developed. The NFC reinforced bio-PU foams were performing in a level of commercial PU foams. The addition of NFCs up to 0.5 phr improved the compressive strength and modulus of the foams. Extrusion process and recipe were optimized for the production of foamed PLA. Small and even cell size with promising properties was achieved.
The aim of inorganic-organic hybrid coatings with a high NFC content is to coat the surface of honeycomb or web structures. A broad series of hybrid coating compositions has been studied. The combination of comparably high film thicknesses (20 µm) with high NFC contents (>20 %w/w) to achieve the targeted strengthening effect was in the focus of the work as well as impregnation of cellulose based webs. Hybrid coatings (with or without NFC fillers) seem to not have the expected influence on the mechanical performance of the honeycomb core structure. However the targeted strengthening effect seems to be achievable by using special surface modified nanocellulose or in-situ milled NFC/hybrid coating combinations on webs. In general this opens a completely new exploitation possibility for strong biobased nanofibers and replacement of glass fibres leading to lighter high performance composite structures.
The required demonstrator specifications were created. Industrial partners have found promising techno-economically viable processing techniques to add NFC containing resins to their production processes and demonstration products. The target is to transfer the laboratory scale production methods to pilot and industrial scale and manufacture demonstrators.
Extensive mechanical testing has been done of the developed various types of nanoreinforced materials, ranging from nanocellulose coated polymer films to nanocellulose filled matrix composites. Micromechanical models have been used to provide guidelines for the expected performance of nanoreinforced materials. Finite-element modelling has been used to simulate the effect of using nanocellulose coated polymer films for honeycomb structures to improve their compressive strength. Impregnation of a fibre web with a nanocellulose filled resin has been modelled by a Monte Carlo based approach. The resulting gradient of nanocellulose concentration within a composite laminate was found to lead to improved flexural performance of the laminate.
The continuous evaluation of environmental, economic, safety and health aspects during the project will avoid trade-offs through a comparative assessment with established processes and products. The feedback from these evaluations helps project partners to identify environmental, health and safety priorities in their production processes. The final aim is to develop new products optimised not only from a technical perspective but also from an environmental and safety perspective.

Potential Impact:
Nanofibrillated cellulose from residues i.e. wastes has an obvious renewable and economic value. The production of NFC from carrot residue was achieved at low energy consumption using less than 2 kWh/kg, hence meeting the targeted energy demand for the process. In a larger perspective both the use of this type of suitable industrial cellulose residue and the tool for predicting energy requirement for strong networks enable processing with significantly less energy demand. This presents a more environmentally friendly option for the processing routes, promoting the industrial production of nanofibres and their subsequent use as reinforcement in nanocomposites where properties of the composite depends on a strong network formation. Given that the density of NFC is 40% lower than that of glass and it is expected that lower fibre volumes of the reinforcement are required, it appears that the project is on track for reaching the target of producing biobased high performance composites with less energy than those for glass-fibre composite.
Furthermore by combining nanofibrillated cellulose with silane chemistry should enhance the NFC-matrix bonding and enable covalent bonding of NFC in a sol-gel matrix and thus widen the potential for different application areas. It is expected that NFCs can be introduced in inorganic-organic hybrid thermoset resins in industrially viable existing and economical processes. In general, this opens a completely new exploitation possibility for strong biobased nanofibers and replacement of glass fibres leading to lighter high performance composite structures. The use of this novel type of hybrid matrix/biobased fibre composites will open new application possibilities, new product lines and new manufacturing possibilities in coating or surface functionalization of polymer films.
Nanofibrillation of cellulose is done in a pre-polymer (monomer or oligomer) medium, allowing fibril consistencies higher than achieved when using an aqueous medium. This also avoids the problems related to incompatibility of aqueous medium and plastics as well as creating an optimal, high consistency, homogenous fibril dispersion in the resin to be used in composite structures.
The development of nano-reinforced composites and sandwich structures is expected to lead to light weight and strong high performance products for e.g. packaging, vehicles and aeronautical applications. This opens a completely new exploitation possibility for strong biobased nanofibers and replacement of glass fibres. Less material is needed for same performance and thus less material needs to be disposed. In epoxy laminates a potential increase in the out-of-plane properties and an increase in Inter-Laminar Shear Strength is foreseen. Improvements in shear and tear strengths by better adhesion between laminate layers is also expected. Additionally, NFC reinforcement has the potential to increase the impact strength and decrease the damage propagation.
Industrial partners in INCOM are focused on improving their products, developing new product lines and new manufacturing possibilities in economical and sustainable ways, utilizing new routes to produce and modify NFC. The results of the development work will be exploited in lightweight sandwich structures and composites both in cores and skins as well as in hybrid coatings. The use of composites will be demonstrated in real end products e.g. in automotive and sporting goods.
The technological solutions that will be developed are expected to create new industrial opportunities and competitive advantages especially within European SME network for various reasons: high-performance additives from abundant agricultural and forestry by-products will represent added value to sectors such as the automotive industry which employ millions of people in the EU. The INCOM project is technology and process oriented with the results directly improving the products and/or processes of the different companies involved.

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