Move over spider silk – there’s a new fiber in town!
Is it possible that the latest ‘wonder material’ has been under our noses the whole time? Could it really be derived from the most abundant organic polymer on earth, requiring only sunlight and water as production inputs? It sure seems that way. To paraphrase a friend of mine (out of context): Mother Nature has been innovating for billions of years and probably has it figured out.
If cellulose is so abundant, why do we care that there are alternative pathways to its nano form? Cellulose usually consists of wood fibers and cell wall remains but there are very few organisms that can synthesize and secrete cellulose nano-microfibrils. Like most things on the nanoscale, the characteristics of cellulose changes dramatically. Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel, stiffer than Kevlar®, very lightweight, conductive, non-toxic, highly absorbent; and that’s just a partial list. Nanocellulose is also extremely versatile with applications in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, films and barrier coatings, water treatment, electronics and more. Nanocellulose has great promise on its own or when used as an additive to composites such as PLA. A small amount of nanocellulose (such as under 5% by weight) has been shown to increase the strength of a PLA composite by 10 times.
Nanocellulose has been an area of ongoing research for decades but has recently been garnering a lot of attention. Just last month, scientists announced a breakthrough in producing nanocellulose from algae. Scientists have successfully engineered cyanobacteria (AKA blue-green algae) to create polymer nanocellulose. Next steps will be to get the algae to produce the more complex crystalline nanocellulose. Nanocellulose can also be produced via a fermentation process with glucose used as a feedstock. Bacteria-derived nanocellulose has advantages including high levels of purity and ease of production.
While nanocellulose has been known for decades, production until now has remained at the lab scale; but that is changing. Over the past two years, production has increased by 1000% and Research and Markets predicts it will increase an additional 500% by 2017. This increase is supported by the creation of a dedicated nanocellulose production facility in Wisconsin by the US Forest Service in 2012.
Given how versatile nanocellulose appears to be, what might be some initial commercial uses? There may be potential in the automotive industry as a replacement material for metallic components given the strength/weight characteristics. Or maybe the opportunity is in watercraft? Researchers in Finland have developed a nanocellulose aerogel that is incredibly buoyant. A one pound boat made out of this super strong, super lightweight, super buoyant aerogel would be able to carry up to 1000 lbs of cargo! Like its material properties, the list of potential applications is almost endless, ranging from transparent conductive electrodes, food (it's edible!) and food packaging, inclusion in paper products, medical applications, an additive for fracking, and more.
At Pangaea Ventures, we get **really** excited by potential platform technologies that can be ‘game changers’ if successful. Materials like nanocellulose, which have applications in multiple industries, can generate superior venture capital returns. The trick is to strike the right balance between focus and the ability to demonstrate the maximum potential of the material. And of course, rapid commercialization is necessary if we're to generate a superior return for our investors. As advanced materials specialists with expertise in guiding platform material start-ups, we look forward to helping these up and coming nanocellulose innovators pave the path forward to commercial success.