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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?

VISION

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. In the second phase, efficiency is to be improved fully automatically by an AI. This is intended to provide industry with important decision-making tools and a practical lead in experience.

 

The project is divided into two parts: The first part will be completed by the August 2023, with the second funding period ending two years later. The pilot plant will be designed, planned, built and commissioned during the first project phase. Special attention will be paid to comprehensive automation of processes, with the goal of clearly demonstrating opportunities and challenges involved in this step.

 

This will take into account the second project phase involving AI-based optimization processes to increase energy efficiency. The established approach will form the basis for accelerated implementation of new processes and materials in the bioeconomy.

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

MISSION

To stimulate the use of wood-based nanocellulose, the production plant must have the highest level of automation and state-of-the-art technology to cut costs and development time to a minimum. The aim is to achieve 100% automation throughout the plant. This means that after commissioning, the plant will operate completely autonomously and without human intervention from feed-in of raw materials to the finished product. The plant shuts down when the desired quality of the end product has been reached.

 

The data obtained from practical application and the digital twin with then be used – with the aid of the AI algorithm – to implement fully automated process optimization. The aim is to demonstrate the challenges and opportunities involved in the planning, construction and operation of a completely fully automated AI-optimized plant and to share findings with the target groups.

 

This results in a number of benefits: On the one hand, it will demonstrate the steps, costs and opportunities that need to be considered when integrating AI into processing plants. AI-based process optimization will also significantly accelerate the transition to biologically oriented industrial production. And finally, the huge reduction in investment and production costs will result in promoting the broad market success of wood-based nanocellulose.

TARGET GROUPS

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.

TOPICS AND SUBSECTORS:

Forestry and wood: The findings from this project will enhance the value that can be created by using wood as a raw material. The production of nanocellulose will result in wood fiber being used as a raw material source, and nanocellulose, in turn, will find new applications. The pulp industry will be able to market its products to new customers or even commission its own plants for further processing of the specially produced pulp.

 

Energy: The rising cost of electricity and stricter regulations pose new challenges for power-intensive industries. The innovative technology used in the project – namely the combination of production engineering with future AI – addresses these problems. Basic research on the implementation of Industry 4.0 promotes the use of new technologies – especially in the pulp and paper industries – and has great potential for increasing efficiency.

 

New materials and surfaces: Until now, nanocellulose production has been very costly, so it has only been used in very few industries and applications. But cheaper production of nanocellulose will allow it to be used in new materials, which means it will not only be the key to product innovations, but also a great potential solution to future issues and challenges.

Contact person KIckBio

Jürgen Sitzmann

Contact | juergen.sitzmann@technikumlaubholz.de

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.