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The Newest High-Tech Material Has Been Growing Under Our Noses The Whole Time

Cellulose might be the secret to making cleaner plastics—and a host of other solutions. And it can be found anywhere that we grow plants.

Despite all the high-tech carbon nanotubes being created in, nature has already hit upon a remarkable building material: cellulose. Those long chains of sugar molecules hold up everything from cell walls to the trunk of a 370-foot redwood. Yet we’ve only used cellulose in the most crude ways by grinding it up for paper or carving it out for wood. Things are about to get much, much more sophisticated.

Scientists are now breaking down cellulose into its smallest possible pieces—tiny fibers that stretch just nanometers across—and rebuilding them into materials for promising applications from military-grade armor to biodegradable plastics stronger than steel.

In the wild, cellulose is marvelously tough under pressure (wood), lightweight (cotton) and adaptable (microbial cells) serving the structural needs of everything from bacteria to bananas. Scientists are exploiting and even improving upon these properties by refashioning the constituent molecules into foams, films, and composites. "It is a sustainable, renewable, biodegradable, biocompatible nanomaterial," says Richard Berry, chief technology officer of CelluForce, a commercial nanoncelluse venture, in Conservation Magazine.

Nanocellulose has been tagged to substitute for trees in paper and petroleum in plastics, eventually degrading harmlessly into carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Researchers are also working on more elaborate materials such as nanocellulose scaffolds for body implants, and clear, bullet-proof glass suitable as armor and screens for electronics. Best of all, the raw material for these materials is cheap and endlessly renewable—whether it comes from trees, straw, or even bacteria.

The USDA Forest Service Forest Products Lab recently opened its first $1.7 million nanocellulose production pilot plant, while Finland is moving ahead with projects of its own. The Forest Service says its "doors are open" to partners in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, and medical device industries who want to commercialize nanoncelluose produced by its new facility.