Scientists from Edinburgh Napier University and Sappi say that they have developed a low cost way to produce nanocellulose from wood fibre that could be used to build greener cars, thicken foods and even treat wounds.
According to Sappi, the new process would enable it to produce the lightweight material on a commercially viable basis without producing large volumes of chemical waste water associated with existing techniques.
The energy-saving process will be used in a new nanocellulose producing pilot plant to be built by Sappi.
“Nanocellulose, extracted from wood fibres, has a number of unique optical, barrier and strength properties,” said project coordinator Math Jennekens, R&D Director at Sappi Europe. “Unlike other lightweight, high-strength materials based on fossil fuels it is completely sustainable, making it very desirable as a new material for various industrial and transport applications.”
The versatile material has previously been produced by intensively processing wood pulp to release ultra-small, or ‘nano’ cellulose fibers — each so small that 2,000 could fit inside the width of a single strand of human hair.
But the Edinburgh Napier research team say they have been able to drastically reduce the amount of energy needed to power the process, as well as the need for expensive chemicals.
“What is significant about our process is the use of unique chemistry which has allowed us to very easily break down the wood pulp fibers into nanocellulose,” said Professor Rob English, who led the research with his Edinburgh Napier colleague, Dr. Rhodri Williams.
“There is no expensive chemistry required and, most significantly, the chemicals used can be easily recycled and reused without generating large quantities of waste water.
“It produces a dry powder that can be readily re-dispersed in water and leaves the nanocellulose unmodified — effectively making its surface a chemical ‘blank canvas’ and so more easily combined with other materials,” English explained.
“The ability to bring all these attributes together have so far eluded materials scientists working in the field. It is very exciting,” he added.
Read more about this compelling new process here.