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Cellulose Nanocrystals, a Potentially Green Alternative to Steel and Carbon Nanotubes


zavattieri-cellulose2Every time cellulose was mentioned in one of your news pieces, it has always been about biofuels. Green algae digesting it and improving biogas production, various processes converting it into fuel, you name it. But this time, scientists from Purdue University in Indiana, have found a different property of the product, one that can potentially make it the must-have material for green buildings construction, its incredible stiffness.

Cellulose is always associated as being a bit of a waste. Although it is a crucial component in all plant structures, most often it is simply a byproduct or the unneeded material that comes out of paper or food production. That was until now, of course. Leaving aside the numerous efforts of scientists and engineers to make use of it in order to find the cheapest and most effective way for biofuel production, the plant product became a subject of quite an interesting research  by a team of scientists at Purdue University, led by Fernando L. Dri, a PhD student at the institute.

For a first time, a research team decides to look at a tiny sample of cellulose nanocrystals, which are only 3 nanometers wide and 500 nanometers long. Because of the small size, this structure has always been regarded as extremely fragile, besides the fact that it is extremely difficult to study with standard light microscopes and laboratory instruments. To everyone’s surprise, however, the detailed laboratory experiment, based on quantum mechanics, showed that although quite tiny, the material is as stiff as steel.

This incredible property of cellulose makes it extremely suitable for strengthening concrete and different polymers, which is currently done with carbon nanotubes. In addition to this, the material could also be integrated in biodegradable plastic bags, flexible batteries, flexible displays of gadgets and devices, computer memory, or even filters for water purification.

The next step in front of the team is to test other natural products that have similar mechanical properties as cellulose. The guys have set their eyes on alpha-chitin, material found in shells of marine organisms, which holds just as great potential, if not better.

Image (c) Purdue University

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