Micro Materials from Towering Timbers: The Emerging Field of Cellulosic Nanomaterial Promises a Sustainable Technology

By Madren, Carrie | American Forests, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Micro Materials from Towering Timbers: The Emerging Field of Cellulosic Nanomaterial Promises a Sustainable Technology


Madren, Carrie, American Forests


IT'S NO EXAGGERATION TO SAY THAT SOCIETY AS WE KNOW IT IS dependent on trees. For centuries, humans have harvested trees for a wide variety of uses. From our books to the wooden bookshelf they sit on, fruits, nuts, lumber, paper and maple syrup, forest products are all around us. And it's not just the products we can see. Cellulose, tiny fibers that make up wood, is found in dinnerware, cellophane and even rocket fuel.

Now, 21st century researchers are gleaning a new material from trees: Nanocellulose, cellulose broken down to the nano-scale. These tiny particles come in two structures: short, rigid nanocrystal rods and longer, flexible, spaghetti-like nanofibrils. Visualizing the miniscule scale of this material takes some work of the imagination. Take a strand of your hair between your fingers. Depending on your hair type, this single strand might be anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. Now imagine a structure just six nanometers wide--approximately .007 percent of a strand of hair. That is the width of one nanocrystal rod or nanofibril. Lined up side by side, more than 4 million of these could fit in a single inch.

THE AMAZING NANOCELLULOSE PARTICLE

Don't let their size fool you. These tiny particles pack in powerfill properties. Nanocellulose is strong and lightweight. The super-strength of cellulose nanocrystals and fibrils is "strength in the order of Kevlar," says Alan Rudie, supervisory research chemist at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisc. Its unique properties make it a prime candidate for improving end-products as diverse as vehicles, sidewalks and paint.

For example, cellulose does not absorb light, so cellulosic nanomaterials can be made into clear films or composites such as impact-resistant windows. Rudie has had discussions with a well-known logging equipment supplier about the possibility of developing these windows for logging vehicle windshields, which are often assaulted by rocks kicked up by cutting blades. "[Rocks] come at their cab windows with almost ballistic speeds," Rudie says.

Loggers aren't the only ones for whom nano-cellulose could improve life behind the wheel. Other companies see the potential for lightweight, tree-harvested nanomaterial in steel or even foam padding. Cellulosic nanomaterials could be substituted in just about anything that contains fibers. Such lighter, better-reinforcing materials in cars would help improve fuel economy and reduce carbon emissions.

Skipping the car trip to get around on your own two feet? The sidewalks of the future could contain nanocellulose too; it can be used as a plasticizer and reinforcing material in cement.

Nan.ocellulose can also help modify the viscosity of paints, cosmetics and even pancake syrup, explains Robert Moon, materials research engineer at the U.S. Forest Service. In the case of paint, nano-cellulose's distinct properties could help paint to go on smoothly and then set with less dripping.

Scientists have even invented new products using nanocellulose: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a water-repelling aerogel, or special sponge-like foam, that floats on water and soaks up oil--a product that could be useful for oil spill clean-ups and more, explains researcher and professor of biomedical engineering Shaoqin Gong of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisc. The oil-soaked aerogel can even be squeezed out and reused.

And what if one day, these tiny particles could even help heal our bodies? Researchers are studying how nanocellulose could help form blood vessels and new bone.

PRIMED FOR SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION

As scientists continue to learn how to best generate cellulosic nanomaterial, they're also figuring out how to produce it more efficiently and cost-effectively. …

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