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Nanocellulose in both tendons and sailboats

Can the super-strong, renewable and biodegradable fibre nanocellulose that scientists at RISE have been involved in producing replace plastic? The answer is both yes and no. Replacing all plastics with a single new material will be difficult. But nanocellulose will have a wide area of application - from artificial ligaments to virtually all sailboats. 

We have known for a long time that plastic made from oil is not environmentally friendly. In addition to the fact that the production is dependent on limited oil resources, most plastic materials are not biodegradable. Nevertheless, millions of tons are discarded into the sea and nature every year. And production is increasing. 

That is of course why new and more sustainable alternatives are welcome. Like the thin nanocellulose thread that researchers at RISE have developed in collaboration with KTH. The material is seen as a possible substitute for many plastic products, but it can also replace other materials. 

– No single material can replace all plastics. Plastic is not a single material, but rather many different ones. However, large-scale commercial use of nanocellulose could replace many plastic products. With the strong fibres, we can also replace glass fibre and the carbon fibre found in many lightweight materials, says Anna Carlmark, section manager at RISE.

Too good to replace plastic

Theoretically, the new material could replace the very common plastic polyethylene used in plastic wrapping, drainpipes, cables, skis and many more items. Replacing polyethylene on a large scale is unlikely. The properties of the material are ‘too good’ for that to happen. However, polyethylene is also used as a material in artificial body parts such as ligaments and tendons. 

– There, our material would have a great advantage in that it is compatible with the body and does not cause inflammation. In addition, it is very strong, says Karl Håkansson, researcher at RISE. 

According to the researchers, their nanocellulose thread is one of the world's strongest and most rigid bio-based materials. The material is eight times as stiff as spider silk, which was long considered to be the strongest biomaterial. Stiffness is an important characteristic of materials for inclusion in different types of constructions, such as boats that are today made of fiberglass.

– You could produce hulls, masts and sails reinforced with our filaments. Yes, in principle, you could build an entire boat out of the material, saysr Oleksandr Nechyporchuk, researcher at RISE.

Artificial tendons

At the moment, the researchers are looking for appropriate collaboration to produce an initial, niche product. 

– An artificial tendon could be a suitable product, says Karl Håkansson.

After that, it will probably take a few more years for the manufacturing process to be developed and scaled up. 

– Production will get cheaper, but it will take time. I usually draw a comparison with polyethylene, which was developed in the 1930s, but could not be produced on a large scale until the 1970s, says Karl Håkansson.