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When paper is more than just paper

Published 13/10/2014 by Hjalmar Granberg

Surely one would like to live in a future where we do not consume the earth's finite resources? A sustainable future with biomass that changes its shape and form in different products. This would be fantastic and something I would be happy to leave behind for my children. But what would this future actually look like? What are the products and why would you want to buy biobased, except for the environmental reasons? This is something we have asked ourselves and will be examining in the new research programme, as we believe there are many possible answers. 

With roots in the forest industry, it seems natural to start with wood fibers. What makes wood fibre or nanocellulose better than other materials? Is it its strength? Is it the shape?? Is it the fact that it can adhere to other biobased materials? Or simply the fact that it is biobased? It soon becomes evident just how complex and elusive the subject is. Describing the benefits of a material’s properties without speaking about the context in which it will be used is a real challenge.

From here, it only feels like a small step to then ask designers which properties the market demands. Surprising properties arouse curiosity. For example, paradoxical properties can be combined in a single material, such as soft and hard, metallic and white, or flexible and rigid. Or interactive properties that respond to a simple touch of the hand, heat, moisture or electrical signals in the material’s surroundings. It could also involve a new language of design, in which forms can be created from a material that were previously impossible. In order to find out what can be done with a material, sooner or later someone has to think about how it should be produced.

The forest industry is an old, well-established industry that typically delivers products in large quantities. This often involves such large volumes that they are hard to grasp, such as 10,000 tonnes. Here, it is clear that there is a gap between large-scale production and the small, tailor-made products that we often begin with. How should this gap be bridged? One solution that I have great faith in is to conceal new properties in a material or semimanufactured product that can be mass produced. These hidden properties can then be activated and patterned by smaller players to meet the specific needs of different customers. 

At Innventia, I have had the benefit of working with a number of examples of biobased materials with hidden properties. How about semiconductive paper as a material for building solar cells or the electronics of the future? Or packaging that opens itself in the oven? Self-collapsing paper packaging that falls apart when emptying the contents? Or a sustainable alternative to fast fashion that is made in a paper machine?

Ahead of the new research programme, a number of companies have singled out research and development of new materials as an important way to ensure the industry’s survival. This gives me great hope for the future.

Hjalmar Granberg
Hjalmar Granberg works in the group "New materials and functions" at Innventia.

Hjalmar Granberg
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