The Next World-Changing Supermaterial Is Grown, Not Made

Watch out graphene; something's coming to eat your supermaterial lunch. Nanocellulose is poised to be the kevlar-strength, super-light, greenhouse gas-eating nanomaterial of the future. And the best part? It's made by nothing but algae.

Already being heralded as a "wonder material" by scientists involved, nanocellulose was shown off last week at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, a meeting of the world's largest scientific society. R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., who's been involved in the material's development for some 40 years, is pretty stoked about the recent progress:

If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever. We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products. While producing nanocellulose, the algae will absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

Cellulose, in its macro form, is one of the most abundant things on the planet. That's what tree bark is made out of. That's the fiber in your bowl of shredded wheat. But like so many other things, cellulose is a different beast at a sub-nanometer scale. Remind you of anything? When nanocellulose is tweaked just right—chained into long polymers or crystalized—it could be put to use in super-light body armor, biofuel, new thin displays, making ridiculously light aerogels, even growing replacement organs for transplants. The stuff has serious potential.

Initially, the production of nanocellulose involved huge breeding tanks of bacteria, which rather annoyingly required things like food. But recent advancements have helped groom a new workhorse: blue-green algae, which unlike normal bacteria, can make its own food from the sun, and devour greenhouse gases in the process. You could hardly ask for more.

So far scientists have succeeded in getting the algae to create polymer, or long-chain nanocellulose, and are working on getting it to make the more complete, crystalline stuff. Operations are already being scaled from labratory samples to outdoor vats of the stuff. Nanocellulose research has been decades in the making, but Brown, who's been there all the way, calls this step "one of the most important discoveries in plant biology." Looks like we have plenty to look forward to. [Eureka Alert via The Verge]

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