A nanocellulose future
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Wood may hold the key to humankind's search for strong, lightweight, sustainable materials to support a booming population.
"Wood is tremendous national asset," said Ted Wegner, keynote speaker at St. Cloud State's Feb. 28 NanoTECH conference in Atwood Memorial Center.
Lightweight, microscopic fibers in wood are nearly as strong as carbon fibers and potentially less expensive to produce, according to Wegner, who is assistant director of the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.
Wegner supervises scientists investigating nanocellulose, a plastic-like fibrous material, derived from wood pulp, which has potential applications in the automobile, aerospace and defense industries. The U.S. has nearly 750 million acres of forest, including more than 190 million acres under Forest Service management.
NanoTECH draws scientists, industry experts and students to St. Cloud State to discuss the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level, typically one to 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre.
Dan Gregory, associate provost for research and dean of graduate studies, helped welcome NanoTECH guests with an offer of assistance.
"We are really committed to working with our industrial partners. Don't be shy about telling us what you need," Gregory said.
The forest products industry needs more time for basic research, applied research and proof-of-concept work, according to Wegener.
And, Wegner said, universities and industry need to work harder at commercializing nanocellulose uses.
Researchers can purchase nanocellulose. The University of Maine, at Orono, is producing about a ton of nanocelluose fibrils a day. Wegner's lab in Madison is producing about 20 kilograms of nanocellulose crystals every three days.
Fibrils, which are easier to extract from wood, are 10-30 nanometres wide. Crystals, which are harder and more expensive to extract, are 3-5 nanometres wide.
Defense industries are watching nanocellulose research. They're looking for lightweight, less-expensive replacements for Kevlar and ballistic glass. Cellulose body armor could potentially be stronger than Kevlar, Wegner said.
The construction industry is intrigued by research that suggests concrete reinforced by nanocellulose crystals could 20 percent stronger.
Nanocellulose research is part of a National Nanotechnology Initiative funded by the federal government at about $1.8 billion a year, he said.
NanoTECH, known formally as the regional Academic & Industry Nanotechnology Conference, was sponsored by the College of Science & Engineering and NanoVox, a Minneapolis nanotechnology advocacy organization.
Conference organizers were Russ Lidberg, assistant professor of chemistry and physics, and Lynne (Cook) Osterman, NanoVox managing director. Osterman is a 1986 graduate of St. Cloud State.