Nanocellulose Basics

collage of microscope photos

Cellulose nanocrystals are tiny, rod-like particles sourced from natural materials. Cellulose nanocrystals that are derived from wood pulp and have dimensions of approximately 5 nanometers (nm) in diameter and 150-200 nanometers in length. Larger crystals can be produced using cotton (10 nm by 500 nm) or algae (20 nm by 1000nm).

Cellulose nanofibrils are noticeably longer and often branched or forked, with dimensions of 20-50 nm in width and lengths of up to several hundred microns. All of the cellulose nanomaterials produced by the UMaine PDC and by our partners at the Forest Products Laboratory are made from wood pulp.

Precautions when Handling – Exercise caution when handling CNC or CNF samples, as the dry material can get dispersed in the air fairly easily. We recommend using a good cartridge-type respirator.

Sample Requests – To order samples, visit our Order Nanocellulose page, where you can fill in our Nanocellulose Request Form.

To learn more about the properties of the nanocellulose sold by the PDC, review our Nanocellulose Data Sheets.

Q: What is nanocellulose?

A: Nanocellulose is a naturally occurring material composed of nanofibrils that have been isolated from a cellulosic material. That source material can be trees, various plants, algae, bacteria or even invertebrate animals like tunicates. Here at the PDC, we primarily work with nanocellulose that is derived from trees and wood pulp.

A number of chemical and mechanical processes can be performed to liberate nanocellulose from the source material. The most common forms of nanocellulose – and the ones that we work with at the PDC – are cellulose nanofibrils and cellulose nanocrystals.

Q: What are some of nanocellulose’s practical applications?

A: The technical, chemical and commercial applications of cellulose nanomaterials are truly vast. Chemical manufacturing, pulp and paper, composites, food packaging, cosmetics – cellulose nanomaterials are currently being used in dozens of industries, fields, and disciplines around the globe.

Q: What are some of the properties that make cellulose nanomaterials so useful?

A: Cellulose nanomaterials exhibit high tensile strength, low density and a high degree of thermal stability. These nanomaterials are unusually light, strong and absorbent, making them ideal for use in any number of products. Cellulose nanomaterials also have the potential to be manufactured in industrial quantities at relatively low cost, making them an attractive option for high volume applications.

Q: Are there any health or environmental risks associated with working with nanocellulose?

A: While working with any material carries with it some degree of risk, cellulose nanomaterials have thus far been found to have extremely low environmental, health and safety risks. As a product of naturally occurring cellulose, these nanomaterials are a renewable, sustainable and environmentally responsible resource (they are also fully biodegradable). You can learn more about working with cellulose nanomaterials by viewing our Nanocellulose Spec Sheets and Safety Data Sheets.

Q: What is the difference between nanocrystals and nanofibrils?

A: While nanocrystals and nanofibrils are both cellulose nanomaterials, there are some significant differences between the two. Cellulose nanocrystals (abbreviated as CNC) contain primarily crystalline cellulose, with very little amorphous cellulose or hemicellulose. Cellulose nanofibrils (abbreviated as CNF) contain all three. CNC usually has short, rod-shaped particles, while CNF particles are typically longer, more flexible and are often branched. CNC is typically used for transparent applications, such as films and barriers, while CNF is often used for reinforcing applications and viscosity modification.

Q: Where can I purchase nanocellulose samples for use in research/testing/product development?

A: Right here at the PDC! We offer samples of both CNF and CNC (in various forms) for sale to researchers, laboratories, companies, and educational institutions. To fill out an order form, head to our Order Nanocellulose page.

Q: What is the difference between nanocellulose in a dry form versus nanocellulose in a slurry form?

A: The PDC offers CNF and CNC in dry and slurry forms. Dry forms of nanocellulose lower shipping costs and freeze-dried nanocellulose is also easier to redisperse upon receipt. Otherwise, there is little significant difference between any of the forms.