Biologists Grow the Next Wonder Material in a Vat of Algae

By Wesley Fenlon

Cellulose makes up cardboard and and the dietary fiber we consume every day, but nanocellulose is a far more promising material.

A breakthrough in biology research may hold the key to producing everything from thin, flexible electronic displays to harder-than-steel kevlar and medical bandages. The magic ingredient, which biologists hail as a wonder material thanks to its versatility, is called nanocellulose. And how do biologists plan to produce enough of the material to change the world? They'll grow it in algae.

Biology Professor R. Malcolm Brown, who has been working on nanocellulose research for decades, believes his recent success with algae is a major landmark for biological research, reports The Verge. reports The Verge. Brown presented his research at a recent American Chemical Society talk. His presentation summarized that cellulose "is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth, a material, like plastics, consisting of molecules linked together into long chains. Cellulose makes up tree trunks and branches, corn stalks and cotton fibers, and it is the main component of paper and cardboard. People eat cellulose in "dietary fiber," the indigestible material in fruits and vegetables."

Nanocellulose, or microfibrilliated cellulose, is a bit different. Brown's presentation explained nanocellulose "shares the unique properties of other nanometer-sized materials — properties much different from large quantities of the same material. Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar. Great strength, light weight and other advantages has fostered interest in using it in everything from lightweight armor and ballistic glass to wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation."

So where does the algae come in? In the past, Brown studied producing nanocellulose through the bacterium Acetobacter xylinum, which secretes nanocellulose into its culture medium. This helped them learn how to turn nanocellulose into a polymer, linking its molecules together into long chains, and how to crystallize it into a stable material. But acetobacter xylinum isn't ideal for large-scale production.

The wonder material can be produced from a self-sustaining algae that actually benefits the environment as it creates nanocellulose.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, offers several advantages: they "make their own nutrients from sunlight and water, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while doing so. Cyanobacteria also have the potential to release nanocellulose into their surroundings, much like A. xylinum, making it easier to harvest."

Brown's wonder material isn't just flexible enough to be used in a variety of applications; it can be produced from a self-sustaining algae that actually benefits the environment as it creates nanocellulose. His lab is still experimenting with producing nanocellulose in a form that is both polymer and crystalline in structure. He predicts that actually being able to produce nanocellulose on a large, industrial scale is 5-10 years out, but the real barrier to productio nisn't science. It's money--the more government and industry invests in biofuels and sustainable energy, the sooner nanocellulose can have a shot at changing the world.