Could some plastics be replaced with plants?

It may sound far-fetched, but that is exactly the question researchers at MIT have been looking into, and they have found some promising results.

Technically, the researchers aren’t using “plants” exactly, but something called cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), which are the “main structural component of all plants and algae.” According to Bio Market Insights, these CNCs can be used to create new types of composites that might be much stronger than other CNC-based materials.

CNCs have been used to help create composites before, but only at low levels. This is because “the crystals have tended to clump and only weakly bond with polymer molecules.”

Now, MIT researchers may have cracked the CNC code, as they are able to use much higher levels of CNCs than previously thought possible.

Bio Market Insights explains:

The researchers developed a material made up of 60-90% of CNCs, which is the highest fraction of CNCs achieved in a composite to date. The material has been found to be stronger and tougher than some types of bone, and harder than typical aluminum alloys.

The team achieved a ‘recipe’ for the CNC-based composite that they could fabricate using both 3D printing and conventional casting. They printed and cast the composite into penny-sized pieces of film that they used to test the material’s strength and hardness.

By creating composites with CNCs at high loading, we can give polymer-based materials mechanical properties they never had before,’ says A. John Hart, professor of mechanical engineering. ‘If we can replace some petroleum-based plastic with naturally-derived cellulose, that’s arguably better for the planet as well.’ Hart and his team have published their results in the journal Cellulose.”

Read the full story in Bio Market Insights here.


  • Adam Houser

    Adam Houser coordinates student leaders as National Director of CFACT's collegians program and writes on issues of climate and energy.