Artificial intelligence (AI) is developing rapidly. The massive increase in the power of AI systems and their use in a wide variety of applications offers huge opportunities for science, business and the community. But at the same time, this rapid development poses challenges for the sectors involved.
The maxim ‘Artificial intelligence must be aligned with human values and developed for the benefit of humanity’ is particularly applicable to the field of science. Comprehensive research is more important than ever for understanding and applying technical developments – including ethical, social and legal perspectives. The generation of enormous amounts of data increases the information density of AI systems – while at the same time making interpretation more difficult. The question is whether artificial intelligence the right solution. And what practical potential is there for the technology?
The aim of the project is to build an operational and fully automatic pilot plant and a digital twin for the production of nanocellulose from beech wood fibers.
Nowadays, many everyday products incorporate ingredients that have been produced from petrochemicals – such as plastics, plasticizers, surfactants, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners and solvents – and are therefore neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. In the cosmetics segment, these are, for the most part, synthetic polymers or microplastics. Food producers, on the other hand, primarily use emulsifiers and fats based on materials that are highly controversial from a socioecological point of view, including palm oil.
In most cases, however, these ingredients do not have any specific function, such as being an active ingredient or flavor carrier, but only have a secondary role such as thickening or water binding. This makes it desirable to replace them with renewable raw materials. Nanocellulose, developed in the 1980s, would be a suitable alternative: It can be produced from local woods, can be safely consumed by humans and animals, and is both renewable and biodegradable.
But is well worth examining the data on the use of the material since its market launch: After 40 years of development in the market, the available quantity of nanocellulose is very modest at approximately 30 tonnes per year. This can be attributed to several factors such as labor intensity, the enormous investment required to produce each tonne of product, high energy consumption, and the lack of raw material suppliers.
The project focuses on two target groups – Germany, as an attractive location for business, and the EU – as both want and have to transition towards a bioeconomy. In most cases, however, newly developed products based on renewable raw materials have to compete economically with established products whose processes have been optimized over decades. But we no longer have the luxury of such a long lead time. That’s why the technology developed in this project is essential in making a pool of experience for AI-assisted product development and process optimization available to companies.
Added to which there is already considerable demand for nanocellulose on the market. But despite more than 40 years of development, there is still no economically viable security of supply to meet the huge demand. So this project will provide a significant stimulus. It serves the economic and ecological optimization of production plant while at the same time enabling the efficient use of beech wood fibers in keeping with responsible forest management. Forestry operations (as suppliers of raw material), plant manufacturers and operators and users of the nanocellulose product will all benefit from this increased demand.
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About EFRE: The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is an EU structural fund that promotes economic, territorial and social cohesion within the EU. Baden-Württemberg’s ERDF-based program focuses on the theme ‘Innovation and Energy Transition’ and specifically supports the research, innovation and carbon emissions reduction. Within the framework of REACT-EU, the Baden-Württemberg ERDF program is receiving additional funds to aid recovery from the coronavirus crisis.