October 3, 2015

Nanocellulose Materials by Design

An illustration of a single cellulose nanocrystal and cross-section

New computational approach allows researchers to design cellulose nanocomposites with optimal properties

(October 3, 2015)  Theoretically, nanocellulose could be the next hot supermaterial.

A class of biological materials found within numerous natural systems, most notably trees, cellulose nanocrystals have captured researchers’ attention for their extreme strength, toughness, light weight, and elasticity. The materials are so strong and tough, in fact, that many people think they could replace Kevlar in ballistic vests and combat helmets for military. Unlike their source material (wood), cellulose nanocrystals are transparent, making them exciting candidates for protective eyewear, windows, or displays.

Although there is a lot of excitement around the idea of nanocellulose-based materials, the reality often falls flat.

Sinan Keten

“It’s difficult to make these theoretical properties materialize in experiments,” said Northwestern Engineering’s Sinan Keten. “Researchers will make composite materials with nanocellulose and find that they fall short of theory.”

Keten, an assistant professor of mechanical, civil, and environmental engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and his team are bringing the world one step closer to a materials-by-design approach toward developing nanocomposites with cellulose. They have developed a novel, multi-scale computational framework that explains why these experiments do not produce the ideal material and proposes solutions for fixing these shortcomings, specifically by modifying the surface chemistry of cellulose nanocrystals to achieve greater hydrogen bonding with polymers.

Sinan Keten, about >>