Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The material could change nearly everything we use.
There are so many good things to say about nano-crystalline cellulose, it's hard to know where to begin. It's lightweight, it conducts electricity, it's strong as Kevlar, it's not harmful to humans, and it's made cheaply from a resource we've got in spades. And as of July, it's being produced at a Wisconsin factory run by the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory, the third of its kind and the first in the United States.
Executives from IBM, Ecolab, and Lockheed Martin attended the opening of the $1.7 million facility in Madison, which is expected to support the burgeoning nanocellulose market and contribute to what the USDA thinks will be a $600 billion industry by 2020. In this video from the local NBC news station, experts predict a "domino effect across all industries," and called the plant a "game-changer."
So what is it exactly? NCC is composed of tiny fibers of cellulose, the most common organic compound on Earth, which is found in abundance in all plant material. New technology can purify wood pulp until only NCC remains (more on this here), and the resulting paste has applications that manufacturers are only just beginning to comprehend.
New Scientist reports that the material could change nearly everything we use:
NCC will replace metal and plastic car parts and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future, says Phil Jones, director of new ventures and disruptive technologies at the French mineral processing company IMERYS. "Anyone who makes a car or a plastic bag will want to get in on this," he says.
And at practically no cost:
"The beauty of this material is that it is so abundant we don't have to make it," says Youngblood. "We don't even have to use entire trees; nanocellulose is only 200 nanometres long. If we wanted we could use twigs and branches or even sawdust. We are turning waste into gold.
Where does this concern our cities? Well, as Jones said, it could change the way we think about plastic bags and cars -- and that's just a start. With properties of tensile and compression strength that rival construction materials, nanocellulose could literally change the fabric of our urban centers.
Top image: Wikimedia Commons.