A group of U.S. scientists announced this week that they have made substantial progress in developing an inexpensive method for the production of nanocellulose, a material with the potential to create durable and environmentally friendly products. Nanocellulose is a strong, lightweight material with many applications from body armor to automobiles.
"If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever," said R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., Ph.D, speaking at the First International Symposium on Nanocellulose, held during the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. "We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively."
The new process uses genetically engineered algae that produce the material using only sunlight and water while also consuming carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Until recently, the only method of producing nanocellulose involved feeding nutrients to bacteria in large fermentation tanks, which was expensive and resource-intensive. Researchers were able to engineer the genes from the bacteria that produces the material into blue-green algae, which use only sunlight and water to create their own food.
Nanocellulose is similar to cellulose, the material that makes up tree bark and dietary fiber. It is the primary substance in paper, cardboard and cotton. However, nanocellulose is much stronger, with a strength-to-weight ratio eight times greater than steel.
If scientists are able to scale the production of this material, it could revolutionize the world of environmentally friendly, sustainable consumer products because:
- It is so light, it could be used in the manufacturing of ultra-lightweight cars with superb fuel economy
- Its fibrous structure would lend itself well to filtration systems and desalination products
- Its strength and lightness would make it useful as a material for body armor
- Its thin and crystalline structure could make it a replacement for the glass and plastic in video screens and monitors.
Nanocellulose has the additional benefit of being produced using renewable energy and not having been derived from fossil fuels