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New process for manufacturing nano-cellulose powder; applications in novel lightweight composite materials

A scanning electron microscope image of chemically modified, nanofibrillized cellulose. Click to enlarge.

Researchers at Switzerland’s Empa—an interdisciplinary research and services institution for material sciences and technology development within the ETH Domain—have developed a manufacturing process for nano-cellulose powder for use as a raw material for creating polymer composites.

Cellulose nanofibers can be used as stable, extremely reactive raw materials for technical applications while boasting the additional advantages of being biologically produced and biodegradable. Such applications include reinforcing (bio-)polymers to create very promising, environmentally safe, lightweight construction material for the car industry, as well as membrane or filter materials for applications in packaging and biomedicine.

Cellulose is a biopolymer with unique structural properties. Cellulose is extremely strong in tension and can be chemically modified in many ways, thereby changing its characteristics. It is also biodegradable. In the search for novel polymer materials with certain desirable characteristics material scientists have developed such substances as high performance composites in which nanofibers of cellulose are embedded.

In the form of lightweight structural material, these composites have similar mechanical properties to steel, while as nano-porous bio-foam they provide an alternative to conventional insulating materials.

Classical cellulose chemistry on the industrial scale is primarily used in the wood pulp, paper and fiber industry. Commercial research is currently focused on isolating and characterizing cellulose in the form of nanofibers. Nano-cellulose consists of fibers or crystals with a diameter of less than 100 nm. Material scientists hope to be able to use nano-cellulose to create new lightweight materials boasting high mechanical strength—i.e., ideal material for creating lightweight structures.

The cellulose experts in Empa’s Wood Laboratory isolated cellulose nanofibers from wood pulp. These are several micrometers long but only a few nanometers thick and are closely interlinked. The fibers have an extremely large surface area on which chemical-physical reactions with substances such as water, organic and inorganic chemicals and polymer compounds can occur.

Nano-cellulose isolated from wood pulp is initially in the form of a water-based suspension. If the material dries out the cellulose fibers stick together forming rough clumps and it loses its outstanding mechanical properties. For this reason the Empa researchers sought to develop a process which allowed them to dry nano-cellulose without it clumping and becoming rough.

To achieve this, the cellulose was treated using a technique which is easily implemented on a large scale and is also completely harmless, even being suitable for applications in the food industry. The method prevents the cellulose fibrils from forming clumps and sticking together.

After being re-dispersed in water the dried nano-cellulose powder boasts the same outstanding properties as undried, unmodified cellulose. This makes the new product an attractive alternative to conventional cellulose suspensions for the synthesis of bio-nanocomposite materials. Suspensions currently in use consists of over 90% water which causes the transport costs to explode and increases the danger of degradation by bacteria or fungi. In addition aquatic cellulose suspensions are laborious to work with since usually in the course of chemical processing solvents must be exchanged.

The work on developing the new manufacturing process and identifying applications for nano-cellulose in various biopolymers was recently recognized with the award of the Empa Research Prize 2011. In a collaborative project with the Luleå University of Technology, Sweden, Empa researcher and PhD student Christian Eyholzer and his co-workers used the novel nano-cellulose powder to reinforce adhesives, hydrogels and biodegradable synthetics.



Many people are presently trying to find better ways to extract nano cellulose (from wood) and use it to re-enforce polymers and/or as composites for the car industry as a replacement for steel. Eventually, those composites could reduce car bodies weight by 30% to 50%. It would be a major advantage for e-vehicles, to reduce battery size and/or get more e-range.

Patrick O'dell

I wonder if they use lyophilization (ie. freeze drying).

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