Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer in nature and has been widely used in paper, as a precursor for advanced materials and fibers, as well as an additive in food and pharmaceuticals. More recent efforts have sought to use nanoscale forms of cellulose, broadly termed nanocellulose, to address different material challenges such as improving the performance of cement and concrete, developing flexible substrates for electronic devices, and producing new polymer matrix composite materials. Nanocellulose is available as cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) and cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs), and they are extracted from the biosynthesized microfibrils in plants, organisms, and animals. Whereas CNCs are comprised almost entirely of ordered cellulose molecules, CNFs contain ordered and disordered regions. These structural differences provide a range of properties and performance in applications.
Beyond cellulose, chitin is another biopolymer used effectively by nature and finding new uses as a nanomaterial. It is also abundant and has been used in agricultural and biomedical applications. Chitin may be isolated in nanofiber form and shows promise as a novel material for barrier applications as well as a reinforcement for polymer composites.
At Georgia Tech, researchers are investigating how to use nanocellulose and nanochitin effectively in diverse applications and leveraging interdisciplinary skills to advance the state-of-the-art.
Chemical structure of chitin (top) and cellulose (bottom)