One of the main objectives of the ecological transition is addressing the enormous pollution caused by plastic. for it to be possible without sacrificing our quality of life, there is a need to find alternatives. In particular, in the field of packaging. Recently, an exciting novelty has arrived from the United States regarding studies in this sector. The idea is to exploit what makes wood strong to produce sustainable plastic.
A group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston has taken action in this direction, studying the use of cellulose polymers to create innovative materials. Cellulose polymers make up the fibers of wood: they keep the secret of the resistance of trees, plants, algae. Moreover, they have exceptional mechanical and chemical properties. If today they have been mainly used in the production of paper or fabrics, they could have an actual new application in the future.
It had been possible to insert cellulose nanocrystals only in minimal quantities within materials composed for most synthetic fibers—the work of researchers A. However, John Hart, Abhinav Rao, Thibaut Divoux, and Crystal Owens, whose results were published in the journal Cellulose, led instead to creating a material where the natural part is between 60 and 90 percent.
The researchers managed to extract the nanocrystals and then insert them into a compound with the consistency of a gel. This allows replicating the mixture also through 3D printing, as well as with traditional methods. And the results seem encouraging: the researchers’ combination is more robust than some types of bone and more rigid than some aluminum alloys. And there is another significant fact. The material has a structure similar to that of mother-of-pearl, making it particularly resistant to deformation.
On the other hand, numerous problems remain to be solved. First, the study explains the shrinkage of the compound during its transformation into a gel, the effects of which are negligible in creating minor artifacts but still relevant in the case of large objects. Furthermore, similar research has been underway for years, which in many cases did not have results equal to the expectations initially generated.
However, the study by MIT researchers seems to be promising, and its potential applications are numerous. Not only packaging materials but also, for example, dental implants. These are not entirely sustainable solutions: as mentioned, the compounds made also combine cellulose crystals with parts based on synthetic materials. But the road seems to have been drawn: materials production because of an ecological packaging revolution takes another step.