If you thought graphene was the wonder material of the new millennium, hold on to your hats because another wonder material just rode into town and this one promises to be just as interesting. A team of researchers at Purdue University has demonstrated that nanocrystals of cellulose, the building blocks of trees and other plants, have a stiffness of 206 gigapascals, which puts them in the same league as steel.
Okay, so two things: what is a gigapascal, and weren’t we the ones who first said that graphene was the wonder material of the new millennium?
Vegetables As Strong As Steel!
No, way back in 2010 we said that graphene was the nanomaterial of the new millennium, but whatever. Let’s move on to cellulose nanocrystals.
The research team arrived at the stiffness of 206 gigapascals by precisely modeling the atomic structure of cellulose, based on crystals only 3 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) wide by 500 nanometers long.
Cellulose nanocrystal structure by Pablo Zavattieri/Purdue University.
Giga is metric system for one billion and pascal refers to a unit of pressure (aka stress) applied to one square meter, as established by the International System of Units.
If you want to know more about pascal units the folks over at SearchCIO-Midmarket.com will tell you everything, and if you want to convert your gigapascals into something else our new friends over at unitconversion.org can do 78,764 conversions for you.
Now multiply one gigapascal by 206 and you get steel-variety strength, although perhaps more so in trees than zucchini.
The researchers caution that their work is still in the early stages, and they have yet to unlock the properties of perfect nanocrystalline cellulose structures, but so far things look promising.
If the research progresses as anticipated, cellulose nanocrystals could be used to reinforce polymers (aka plastics), concrete, and other materials, by chemically modifying their surfaces.
Here’s a rundown of some potential applications from Purdue:
…plastic bags, textiles and wound dressings; flexible batteries made from electrically conductive paper; new drug-delivery technologies; transparent flexible displays for electronic devices; special filters for water purification; new types of sensors; and computer memory.
Cellulose nanocrystals could be harvested and refined from trees and other plants and any number of other renewable sources including algae, cellulose-producing bacteria, and tunicates, these weird little creatures that attach themselves to underwater surfaces and live by sucking water in and squirting it out, which is why they are more commonly known as sea squirts.
The research team also anticipates that leftover cellulose from the paper and biofuel industries could also be roped into service, providing an abundant, low cost feedstock.
One More Step Toward An Edible Car
Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you could eat your car when you’re done with it? Well, we’re not there yet, but the US Department of Agriculture has been all about promoting biobased materials for the automotive industry, and we did notice that aside from an assist from the USDA Forest Products Laboratory and the National Science Foundation, the Purdue research team also included a loaner from the GM Research and Development Center.
We’ve been following GM’s top rated Chevy Volt gas-electric hybrid since it launched but we’re not as familiar with the company’s work on biobased car parts. As of a couple of years ago GM was still iffy about biobased materials, but its involvement in the Purdue project could be a hint that it’s gearing up to jump on next-generation biobased car parts.
Skip on over to Ford, though, and you’ll find a hum of activity around biobased car parts, including soy foam seat cushions and plastic storage components reinforced with wheat straw already available current models. Let’s throw in Ford’s use of recycled denim for soundproofing, too, since that means cotton.
We’re also keeping an eye on Ford’s interest in dandelion rubber, so stay tuned.
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About the Author
Tina Casey Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.
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