Nanocellulose is a new wonder material that is simply plant matter that has been carefully smashed to pieces, and then reformed into neatly-woven nanoscale crystals and fibers.
You generally start with wood pulp, remove any non-cellulose impurities (such as lignin) using a homogenizer, and then gently beat the mixture to separate each of the cellulose fibers. Depending on the exact process used, these fibers then form into a thick paste of needle-like crystals (2nm wide, hundreds of nanometers long), or a spaghetti-like structure of cellulose fibrils. This paste can then be shaped, or used to laminate other surfaces — and when it dries, it has amazing properties.
Nanocellulose is very similar to glass fiber or Kevlar — it’s very stiff, lightweight, and it has eight times the tensile strength of steel. The crystalline form of nanocellulose is transparent, too — and perhaps most importantly, unlike other wonder materials such as graphene, nanocellulose can be produced in large quantities very cheaply.
In crystalline form, nanocellulose is gas impermeable — and when used as the basis for foams/aerogels, it’s highly absorbent.
In July, the US Forest Service opened the country’s first nanocellulose plant in Madison, Wisconsin. This is only the third nanocellulose plant in the world, with the other two being in Canada and Sweden. The CelluForce factory in Montreal is now producing a tonne of nanocellulose per day. After a ramping-up period of a couple of years, the US Forest Service expects to sell nanocellulose for just a few dollars per kilo.