The amazing material that promises flexible displays, faster cars and bullet-proof suits

4th Jun 2013 | 11:45

The amazing material that promises flexible displays, faster cars and bullet-proof suits

The revolutionary material you need to know about

Up until recently, graphene was heralded as the wonderstuff to end all wonderstuff, but there's a new super-material in town, and its name is nanocellulose. From bendable batteries and flexible screens to superhero-like body armour, nanocellulose could revolutionise our lives.

What is nanocellulose?

Nanocellulose is a nanoscale configuration of good old cellulose, which is one of the most abundant materials on the planet. It's the main constituent of plant cell walls, providing structural support to pretty much every green thing on Earth.

From tree bark to flower stems, it's the material that combined with water produces the effect known as turgor, providing their rigidity and supporting plants like the bones of mammals.

Cellulose itself is simply a combination of glucose molecules, linked in long chains in a particular configuration, differentiating it from starch and other glucose-derived substances.

In its natural state, within plants and other living things, it's useful for materials like paper. As a foodstuff we call it fibre, which you can't digest without help, although cows, sheep and horses can, which is why they graze on grass.

Nanocellulose: the amazing super-material explored

However, when you shrink the structure of cellulose down to the nanoscale and apply a particular configuration to it, things start to get interesting.

You see, a bit like other crystalline constructions, such as incredibly hard diamonds made from a pure carbon crystalline lattice, the structure lends drastically different properties to otherwise unremarkable materials. By forming cellulose into long polymers or meshing it into a crystalline lattice, nanocellulose (or nanocrystalline cellulose, to give it its full name) becomes one of the strongest materials known to man.

It can also conduct electricity and is extremely light, which are properties that make it a super-material with immense potential to change our world.

How nanocellulose is made

Nanocellulose: the amazing super-material explored

The beauty of nanocellulose, before we get on to what we can do with it, is how we can produce it. Up until recently, nanocellulose was produced by treating wood pulp; an expensive and costly process in large quantities. Now a new technique that relies on algae can produce nanocellulose simply from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The genetically modified blue-green algae produce nanocellulose as part of its energy metabolism, which helpfully also takes in carbon dioxide during the photosynthetic stage. So, not only is producing nanocellulose incredibly cheap and energy efficient, powered only by the sun, but it can also take carbon dioxide out of the air.

Uses for nanocellulose

Now that we're finally on the verge of being able to produce nanocellulose efficiently, cost-effectively, and in useful quantities, it's time to start thinking about what we can actually do with something so strong and light.

Super-flexible displays

Nanocellulose: the amazing super-material explored

The idea of using a flexible display in phones and other portable devices has been banded around for ages now. Unfortunately, one of the leaders in the field, Samsung Display, has hit a few snags of late, which means we've still got a little way to go before we see devices we can actually buy.

Because nanocellulose is both light and strong, and most importantly, transparent, it could make the ideal material to replace glass or plastic in display screens. The nanocellulose could be made into a flexible but strong and durable coating for the bendable displays, enabling all sorts of fancy formats and screens.

That's why Pioneer Electronics is actually looking into it as we speak, crafting some of the thinnest and most flexible displays ever made. It's biodegradable too, which means once you've upgraded your flexible phone, at least one part of it can be recycled.

Bendable batteries

It's all very well having bendable screens, but the other components of our phones, tablets and laptops aren't flexible in the slightest. Nanocellulose could help here too.

Buried within any battery are separators that govern the flow of the cell's electrolyte and electrons. These separators play a crucial structural and functional role within the batteries, meaning we can't simply remove them. However, they are also rigid and inflexible in their current form.

When combined with graphite, nanocellulose conducts electricity while maintaining its strength and flexibility. That means you could, in theory at least, use nanocellulose to create flexible separators, removing one hurdle towards a truly bendable battery.

Of course, you still need a flexible shell around the outside of the cell, but one of our other super-materials can manage that - we wouldn't want graphene to feel left out of the electronics revolution, now would we?

Incredibly strong and light body armour

Nanocellulose: the amazing super-material explored

When you think of body armour, Kevlar probably comes to mind. It's the material most armour not made of plate-steel is constructed with, because the Kevlar fibres knit into a very dense, strong mesh.

Since nanocellulose can be made from incredibly fine fibres too, meshed into a dense crystal lattice in a similar way to Kevlar, it can have a strength-to-weight ratio of up to eight times that of steel.

That makes it the ideal material to construct super-light but incredibly tough body armour, which has the potential to be flexible but still offer good protection.

If you wanted a full-body bullet-proof suit to turn you into a superhero, nanocellulose is what you'd use to make it. In fact, Iron Man could actually be renamed Nanocellulose Man in a couple of years, although it doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Lighter, faster and more efficient cars

The lighter your car is, the better it will perform. Carbon fibre is the material of choice for high performance cars, but nanocellulose could be the substance to transform our regular cars.

Because nanocellulose is light and strong like carbon fibre, but also cheap to produce with the new algae-based manufacturing methods, it could hold the key to lighter family cars. That'll mean better fuel efficiency and better performing cars, which is both good for the environment and your wallet. In fact, Ford is reportedly already looking into it, meaning your next Fiesta might be even lighter and therefore faster off the mark.

Super-filters and incredible aerogels

Nanocellulose: the amazing super-material explored

As the world gets more and more polluted, finding good ways to filter out the rubbish from our water supply is increasingly important. Nanocellulose can help here too, since its nanoscale crystal lattice can be used to create incredibly fine filters, cheaply.

They can then be used for all sorts of things, from purifying water and blood, or even as chemical filters for things like cigarettes. Nanocellulose could even be used in a desalination technique to rapidly and cheaply produce drinking water from salt water.

If that wasn't enough, because of its strength, nanocellulose can be made into aerogels, or foam, capable of supporting over 10,000 times its own weight, while being incredibly absorbent. It could then be used as super sponges, for anything from wound dressings to water and liquid fuel transport mechanisms. It could even be used to rapidly soak up chemical spills for safe disposal in emergencies.

The beauty of nanocellulose is that, with all these incredible properties, it should be cheap to produce, maintain its strength and structure when wet, and be biodegradable when we're finished with it, making it kind to the planet too.

With so much amazing potential, which we've only scratched the surface of today, that really does make nanocellulose a true super-material.

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