New method makes nanocellulose composites industrially viable

By Scott Jenkins |

Cellulose nanoparticles are of great interest as constituents of polymer composite materials because they can dramatically increase strength and toughness in a range of different polymer types. “Cellulose nanoparticles can be thought of as a more sustainable version of carbon nanotubes, in the way they can improve mechanical strength performance for composites,” explains Jeffrey Youngblood, a materials engineer at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.; www.purdue.edu) who leads a laboratory exploring them.

However, the economic production of polymer composites using cellulose nanomaterials has been stymied by difficulties in dispersing the materials effectively throughout the polymer resins. Solvents can be used to disperse the materials, but that approach requires composite manufacturers to install additional processing steps for the solvents and emissions control devices, which raise the cost of the composites. Now, researchers in Youngblood’s laboratory have developed a method to disperse nanocellulose into polymers without the need for solvents.

“Cellulose is a very hydrophilic material, so it is difficult to introduce it into hydrophobic polymers,” Youngblood explains, adding that effective dispersal is critical because at the nanoscale, the cellulose particles tend to aggregate, which negates the potential performance benefits in the composite material.

The Purdue team has taken the approach of using common polymer additives as carriers that introduce the nanocellulose into the polymer in an dispersed way. Common additives for polymer resins, such as plasticizers or colorants, can be used to introduce the nanocellulose into the polymer without the use of solvents, he says.

Using this compounding approach, the research team introduced cellulose nanoparticles into the biopolymer polylactic acid (PLA), which has shown improved strength performance, as well as nylon-6 fibers, ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH; used in packaging films), polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) and others. The nanocellulose content varies by polymer type, but can have an upper limit between 5 and 20%, depending on the polymer. Nanocellulose particles can also be used at low levels to nucleate crystalline regions in a polymer.

The team is testing the strength properties of the polymer composites and looking for licensing partners.

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