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Paperlogic Turners Falls Mill Explores Nanocellulosic Future

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According to a recent article by The Republican, Springfield, Mass., USA, tiny fibers might turn into big business for Paperlogic, Turners Falls, Mass., a unit of Southworth Co., (Agawam, Mass.) as it searches for new products to keep its 120-year-old paper mill in Turners Falls busy and its workers employed as it exits the office paper business.

Kenneth Schilling, mill manager and technical director describes how the new nano-paper Southworth Papers Paperlogic mill is developing for the future. Nano, which means one billionth, as in a billionth of a meter in size, is very, very big in the technology world today—nanocomputers, nanomedicine, and in the paper industry, nanocellulose nanofibrils.

Nanocellulose, Schelling explains, is the same plant fibers papermakers have been using since the beginning of time. But now scientists are able to separate those fibers down until they are as small as they can be while still being cellulose.

The company has received a $350,000 grant from the federal government and help from papermaking equipment suppliers to start grinding wood pulp into nanofibers at its mill in Turners Falls. Schelling hopes to get the new equipment up and running in the first half of 2015.

For months, the mill has been experimenting using nanocellulose produced in a laboratory at the University of Maine. The equipment basically just tears the fibers apart, Schelling said, "It's breaking the fiber down to the molecular level," he said.

Once scientists and engineers get the fibers that small, cellulose starts to take on some unusual, but promising, properties. Nanocellulose can absorb much more water than the regular pulped fiber. Made into paper, nanocellulose forms a tighter, smoother bond. 

Market forecasters covering nanotechnology and nanomaterials predict that by 2020 the nanocellulose market in North America alone will be worth $250 million. Paperlogic wants to be in on the ground floor of that business. 

"People have been working with nanocellulose in laboratories for years. It is time to scale the technology up to manufacturing. I think we can be an important rung in that ladder," Schelling said.

It is important for Schelling and Paperlogic to find something different. In 2012 Southworth Co. sold its venerable brand of business paper to Neenah Paper of Wisconsin. Some paper in the Southworth line is made in Turners Falls. But Schelling expects production to shift to Neenah's mills.

Southworth has other products it plans to continue to make at Turners Falls, such as watercolor paper for artists or decor paper for laminated countertops or furniture. The mill has about 60 employees.

"But no one is buying copy paper anymore, or at least not as much of it as they were," Schelling said.

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