At DESY’s X-ray light source PETRA III, a team led by Swedish researchers has produced the strongest bio-material that has ever been made. The artifical, but bio-degradable cellulose fibres are stronger than steel and even than dragline spider silk, which is usually considered the strongest bio-based material. The team headed by Daniel Söderberg from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reports the work in the journal ACS Nano of the American Chemical Society.
The ultrastrong material is made of cellulose nanofibres (CNF), the essential building blocks of wood and other plant life. Using a novel production method, the researchers have successfully transferred the unique mechanical properties of these nanofibres to a macroscopic, lightweight material that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative for plastic in airplanes, cars, furniture and other products. “Our new material even has potential for biomedicine since cellulose is not rejected by your body,” explains Söderberg.
The scientists started with commercially available cellulose nanofibres that are just 2 to 5 nanometres in diameter and up to 700 nanometres long. A nanometre (nm) is a millionth of a millimetre. The nanofibres were suspended in water and fed into a small channel, just one millimetre wide and milled in steel. Through two pairs of perpendicular inflows additional deionized water and water with a low pH-value entered the channel from the sides, squeezing the stream of nanofibres together and accelerating it.
This process, called hydrodynamic focussing, helped to align the nanofibres in the right direction as well as their self-organisation into a well-packed macroscopic thread. No glue or any other component is needed, the nanofibres assemble into a tight thread held together by supramolecular forces between the nanofibres, for example electrostatic and Van der Waals forces.
With the bright X-rays from PETRA III the scientists could follow and optimise the process. “The X-rays allow us to analyse the detailed structure of the thread as it forms as well as the material structure and hierarchical order in the super strong fibres,” explains co-author Stephan Roth from DESY, head of the Micro- and Nanofocus X-ray Scattering Beamline P03 where the threads were spun. “We made threads up to 15 micrometres thick and several metres in length.”
Measurements showed a tensile stiffness of 86 gigapascals (GPa) for the material and a tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. “The bio-based nanocellulose fibres fabricated here are 8 times stiffer and have strengths higher than natural dragline spider silk fibres,” says Söderberg. “If you are looking for a bio-based material, there is nothing quite like it. And it is also stronger than steel and any other metal or alloy as well as glass fibres and most other synthetic materials.” The artificial cellulose fibres can be woven into a fabric to create materials for various applications. The researchers estimate that the production costs of the new material can compete with those of strong synthetic fabrics. “The new material can in principle be used to create bio-degradable components,” adds Roth.
The study describes a new method that mimics nature’s ability to accumulate cellulose nanofibres into almost perfect macroscale arrangements, like in wood. It opens the way for developing nanofibre material that can be used for larger structures while retaining the nanofibres’ tensile strength and ability to withstand mechanical load. “We can now transform the super performance from the nanoscale to the macroscale,” Söderberg underlines. “This discovery is made possible by understanding and controlling the key fundamental parameters essential for perfect nanostructuring, such as particle size, interactions, alignment, diffusion, network formation and assembly.” The process can also be used to control nanoscale assembly of carbon tubes and other nano-sized fibres.