Monday, September 10th, 2012 10:14 am GMT -7 Monday, September 10th, 2012 10:14 am GMT -7Monday, September 10th, 2012 10:14 am GMT -7
Microscopic wood fibers - nanocellulose

What is old is new again, in a big way. Meet the Lex Luthor of carbon fiber and Kevlar.




Processed Wood Pulp

Nanocellulose is simply wood fiber broken down into nanoscale sized fibers. Think a million times smaller than a human hair and you would be in the right ballpark. This is the primary structural material that trees use to get their strength.

About a third of wood pulp is made up of this stuff. It takes a bit of processing to separate out these crystalline regions from the rest of the tree compounds such as lignin. But once you have broken it out, you end up with a material with truly amazing properties.

Amazing Properties

This material is about twice as strong as carbon fiber and Kevlar. The stiffness is comparable to those other well-known wonder materials. Only carbon nanotubes are stronger, but they cost about 100 times more to make.

Right now nanocellulose is close to $5/pound to manufacture. With mass production, the hope is to get the cost down to $1/pound. Carbon fiber costs right now about $10/pound. In other words, this amazing material has the potential to be ten times cheaper than carbon fiber. Do you see why so many folks are salivating over it?

Virtually non-toxic, it can also be made transparent. It reminds me of the old Star Trek line about transparent aluminum being the wonder material of the future. This is from Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home. Aluminum does not hold a candle to this stuff.

I consider this a minor snag, but the material does lose most of its properties if exposed to water. The molecules just kind of fall apart. Painting or coating the nanocellulose parts is not hard to do, however.

Big Players

There are large organizations working hard to turn nanocellulose (also called nanocrystalline cellulose) into a practical commercial product. One of these is the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). The FPL is the research branch of the United States Forest Service, which in turn is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, your tax dollars at work.

The FPL has just setup a $1.7 million pilot plant to start producing this amazing material. Do not be surprised if private industry starts opening their own processing plants soon. Wood-derived nanomaterials are expected to be a $600 billion American industry by 2020. Exciting times!

Forest Products Laboratory – Advanced Composites (web)

CelluForce (web)

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