ARCHIVED - Nano-polymer could reduce carbon footprint

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February 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

It’s Nature’s miracle fibre: a biodegradable polymer that is stronger than steel, lightweight, yet durable. 

Called nanocrystalline cellulose, or NCC, this renewable and recyclable resource could be used as a performance enhancer in everything from automotive panels and aircraft parts to paint, adhesives and resins — even medical products such as adhesive bandages and gauze. 

Using a processing method licensed from NRC, Nova Scotia biotech firm Bio Vision Technology Inc. is now supplying a high-grade nanocrystalline cellulose to research institutions and companies that are exploring high-value applications for this material. 

“Bio Vision is interested in developing new bioproducts to replace or supplement petrochemical supplies,” says Stephen Allen, Vice-President of Technology. “By replacing just two percent of the polymers that are now made from petrochemicals, we could significantly reduce our carbon footprint.” 

Another potential benefit is that NCC offers a way of harnessing the waste products from agriculture and forestry. 

NRC-BRI technical officer Sabahudin Hrapovic uses a transmission electron microscope to observe the size and distribution of nanocrystalline cellulose particles.

NRC-BRI technical officer Sabahudin Hrapovic uses a transmission electron microscope to observe the size and distribution of nanocrystalline cellulose particles.

Nanocrystalline cellulose is a fundamental building block of cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on earth. Cellulose contains both crystalline and non-crystalline (amorphous) regions — NCC is obtained by chemically removing the amorphous cellulose, leaving behind tiny, nano-scale needles. 

About the National Bioproducts Program

The National Bioproducts Program (NBP) involves researchers from Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, NRC, Canadian industry and university partners. Bio Vision is one example of how the NBP is helping transform natural fibres from the agriculture and forest industries into high-value, environmentally friendly products. These technologies are being developed in Canada for the domestic and international automotive, aerospace and construction markets.

Simplifying the production process 

The first methods that were developed for extracting NCC used sulphuric acid to dissolve amorphous cellulose. However, this approach is costly, less environmentally friendly and difficult to scale up, so scientists at the NRC Biotechnology Research Institute (NRC-BRI) in Montréal sought to simplify the production process. The result: a single-step procedure that uses an oxidizer to produce a higher quality fibre called “carboxylated NCC.” 

Technical officer Mélissa Filiatrault inspects a reactor where nanocrystalline cellulose is produced in NRC-BRI’s environmental pilot plant.

Technical officer Mélissa Filiatrault inspects a reactor where nanocrystalline cellulose is produced in NRC-BRI’s environmental pilot plant.

“NRC’s approach is less expensive, cleaner, simpler and more amenable to scale up,” says Allen. “What’s more, the final product is more uniform — each fibre is about 150 nanometres long and 5 nanometres wide — and therefore better suited for industrial applications.” 

“Carboxylated NCC is also easier to work with than the NCC made using sulphuric acid because it provides a chemical handle that you can use to attach other chemicals in order to produce tailor-made NCC suitable for various applications as a performance enhancer.” 

In addition to its strength and durability, nanocrystalline cellulose reflects light, which makes it suitable for use in optically reflective films found on passports, credit cards and paper money. “And since this material is biodegradable, you could use carboxylated NCC for targeted drug delivery by hooking its carboxyl handle to a drug,” says Allen.

Related information

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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