Nanocellulose has certainly made its foray into the pantheon of so-called ‘super-materials’. And why shouldn’t it; the eco-friendly stuff is said to be lightweight, ductile and yet much stronger than steel and kevlar. And, perhaps the best part is – nanocellulose doesn’t really need to be manufactured, rather it can be ‘grown’ from purified plant matter!
So what exactly is nanocellulose?
To put it in a single sentence, nanocellulose is reformed plant matter that is based on one of the most abundant materials in our planet – cellulose (found in tree barks). So, the super-material is theoretically derived from plant matter that has been reduced to small bit and pieces, and then purified by a homogenizer to remove non-cellulose components like lignin. The remaining cellulose fibers are finally separated and processed into a thick substrate that boasts of long polymers or crystallized structures. This ultimately results in what is termed as nanocrystalline cellulose or nanocellulose ‘paste’, an incredible material with flexibility, malleability, super-strength as well as low-impact credentials.
Interestingly, scientists have achieved the real breakthrough in the production process of nanocellulose. To that end, modern techniques mostly entail the utilization of blue-green algae. Such algae-types are instrumental in synthesizing the aforementioned polymers (that are shaped like long chains, each of which can extend up to 200 nanometers in length), thus leading to the creation of nanocellulose in a completely natural manner. Furthermore, algae has the advantage of self-sustenance over bacteria, as it can create its own food while absorbing the greenhouse gases from the environment.
The potential future uses of nanocellulose –
1) High-strength yet lightweight body armor –
In purely physical terms, nanocellulose boasts of a whopping 8 times better strength-to-weight ratio than steel. On top of that, it has much higher stiffness than Kevlar – by virtue of the nanostructural arrangement of the needle-like crystals. Considering all of these properties, it comes as no surprise that nanocellulose could be used for light armor, helmets, weaponry and ballistic glass.
In fact, according to the grapevine, the US Army has already joined in the bandwagon to dabble with the effectiveness of material in the field of military purposes. And, the really fascinating part is – many scientists are even thinking of designing small military robots reinforced with special nanocellulose particles!
2) Low-impact (fuel efficient) yet super-durable vehicles –
According to Doug Gardner from University of Maine’s Advanced Wood Engineering Composites Center (AEWC) – even an addition of just 10 per cent of nanocellulose into the mix of a composite material, can increase the overall substance strength by over 70 percent. Such components can certainly be utilized for a range of crafts, including motored vehicles, boats and even aircraft.
In yet another breakthrough, Brazilian researchers have been successful in developing a special plastic variety with 30 percent less weight but four times more strength than conventional plastic – with the aid of nanocellulose derived from bananas. Even renowned automakers like Ford have estimated that they can reduce their commercial car weights by 250-750 lbs, which in turn would could substantially improve their overall fuel efficiency.
3) Medical usages –
Professor Olli Ikkala from the University of Helsinki had showed how an aerogel derived from nanocellulose is light enough to float on the surface of water, and yet it had the capacity to mitigate 10,000 times its own weight! On top of that, the nanocellulose gel has all the advantages of wood-based fibers, including – absorbing power, porosity, molding ability and mechanical sturdiness. These properties can make the biodegradable natural polymers usable in the clinical fields, like – wound healing, dressings and even in absorbent hygiene products like tampons.
Quite interestingly, nanocellulose also has high filtration capacity which is rather aided by its electricity conducting property* (please refer to the next point). To that end, the material can be used for as a ‘current-controlled ion extraction membrane’ that helps in filtering bio-molecules (like DNA oligomers). Furthermore, it can be directly incorporated into dialysis devices to remove toxins from blood – thus entailing an effective solution pertaining to blood transfusions. All of these incredible aspects can result in an astronomical $97 billion medical market for nanocellulose applications by 2017!