23 August 2012

A Revolution Made of Wood?

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which is produced by processing wood pulp, is being hailed as the latest wonder material. Japan-based Pioneer Electronics is applying it to the next generation of flexible electronic displays. IBM is using it to create components for computers. Even the US army is getting in on the act, using it to make lightweight body armour and ballistic glass.

To ramp up production, the US opened its first NCC factory in Madison, Wisconsin, on 26 July, marking the rise of what the US National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

...NCC will replace metal and plastic car parts and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future, says Phil Jones, director of new ventures and disruptive technologies at the French mineral processing company IMERYS. "Anyone who makes a car or a plastic bag will want to get in on this," he says. _NS
A new "miracle material," nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), offers incredible commercial and technological opportunity, yet it can be made out of waste sawdust, twigs, and tree branches. It is a true "garbage to gold" story.
[Nanocrystalline cellulose is] transparent but it also has eight times the tensile strength of stainless steel due to its tightly packed array of microscopic needle-like crystals. Even better, it's incredibly cheap.

"It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price," says Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University's NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana. _New Scientist
By replacing more expensive materials such as plastics, steel, ballistic glass, body armour, etc.... NCC will impact economies in unanticipated ways.

But this is exactly the kind of substitution of cheap and abundant materials in place of more expensive and rare materials, which Julian Simon discusses in his free online book: Ultimate Resource II.

And it is this type of innovation and substitution which makes most prophecies of resource scarcity doom obsolete.
Production of NCC starts with "purified" wood, which has had compounds such as lignin and hemicellulose removed. It is then milled into a pulp and hydrolysed in acid to remove impurities before being separated and concentrated as crystals into a thick paste that can be applied to surfaces as a laminate or processed into strands, forming nanofibrils. These are hard, dense and tough, and can be forced into different shapes and sizes. When freeze-dried, the material is lightweight, absorbent and good at insulating.

"The beauty of this material is that it is so abundant we don't have to make it," says Youngblood. "We don't even have to use entire trees; nanocellulose is only 2 nanometres long. If we wanted we could use twigs and branches or even sawdust. We are turning waste into gold." _NewScientist

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