SUNY study shows benefits of cellulose in plastic

By Jessica Ebert
Adding tiny pieces of cellulose to plastic can make the material up to 3,000 times stronger, and also lighter and biodegradable, according to a team of researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Although the idea of reinforcing plastics with cellulose is not new-in 1995, a French chemist first demonstrated that cellulose particles can indeed make plastic stronger-more companies, including Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific and Eastman Chemical Company, are showing interest in the SUNY-ESF team's work.

To obtain the nano-sized cellulose particles, cells of virtually any kind of plant source- from apple pomace to wheat straw - are torn apart to release tiny microfibrils, explained William T. Winter, a chemist and director of the Cellulose Research Institute at SUNY-ESF. These particles consist of crystalline and noncrystalline portions. The noncrystalline parts are destroyed with acids or enzymes, leaving a milky mixture of cellulose nanocrystals that can be mixed with molten plastic to form a unique material that could potentially be used to make latex plastic products and bone cements, among other things. "Any plastic fabrication technology could be adapted to this," Winter said. However, one of the main limitations of the material is that nanocrystals themselves break down at temperatures over 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit), which would eliminate the usefulness of cellulose nanocrystals for the production of certain plastics reinforced with Kevlar.

Winter sees the technique working hand-in-hand with cellulosic ethanol production. Waste biomass from the process could be used in the synthesis of cellulose nanocrystals. "These nanocrystals could be thought of as a coproduct of bioethanol," he said.