History of Production
Nano-crystaline cellulose (also known as nano-cellulose or NCC) has and continues to prove itself as one of the most socially significant materials known to man. Discovered in the early 40’s nano-cellulose was originally extracted from wood pulp and plant matter which was broken down with highly concentrated acids and homogonised into nano fibrils. Discovered during a period of military research it was used in the production of high yield supercapacitors used in advanced military hardware from radar to weapons systems, slow release drug implants for specialist troops and in early research into bulletproof glass (although this wasn’t realised until many years later).
It wasn’t until further research was carried out into the many material properties of this wonder material and the development of more effective production techniques that the future significance of NCC became apparent. During the boom of the plastics industry after the second world war nano-cellulose was applied to strengthen polymers to allow the development of stronger, more durable and useful plastics allowing plastics to replace many more conventional materials. Also research found it’s uses within medical applications from the production of sophisticated implants, artificial blood vessels, wound dressings, scaffolds for tissue engineering, and in the production of synthetic tissues.
Further to this, its use in electronics has developed from the crude military supercapacitors used during the war to use in production of LED’s, flexible screens, advanced batteries, and as an acoustic membrane in audio equipment. Beyond these it’s more mundane applications include high strength paper and card, dietary supplements, gloss magazine coatings, anti-shatter films for glass and more.
Developments in Production Processes
The key to it’s use in all of these areas of scientific and cultural development remains, however in the development of NCC production techniques. Early techniques involving Sulphuric acid were time consuming batch processes that did not allow for continuous production and included inherent risks of handling large quantities of high concentration acid.
Following it’s discovery in the 40’s the establishment of secret research laboratories around the country were established. When the Dukes Wood Oil field and research center was established one wing, known as the Puddingpoke research center, was also established. It’s aim was to research the development of nano-cellulose using the abundant supply and wide variety of wood and other plants on it’s doorstep in an effort to discover a more efficient extraction technique as well as the extent of it’s material potential.
Shortly before this research center was due to be decommissioned Puddingpoke researcher Dr Kevin Atwood visited the Philippines to attend a conference on advanced materials where deligates were fed a desert known as Nata De Coco. Produced by the fermentation of coconut water into a chewy gellatinous substance then mixed with fruit juice the consistency of which intrigued Dr Atwood for it’s similarity to cellulose compounds undergoing acid treatment. Taking a sample of this dessert back to the Puddingpoke research facility his team discovered it was a form of synthesised cellulose produced by a acetobacteria known as Gluconacetobacter. His team further discovered that this microbial cellulose could be broken down into it’s constituent fibrils far more easily due to the lack of other contaminants precluding the need for acid treatment, simplifying the production process. This discovery kept the research facility open for another decade.
Following a long period of research into this area the Puddingpoke research team developed, what was affectionately know as the Puddingpoke device. Named not only after the facility and it’s adjacent wood, but also with a nod to Atwood’s discovery of nano-cellulose in a Philippine pudding. The device used a pairing of two non-symbiotic bacterial cultures to produce and extract nano-cellulose in a continuous production. The first, Proterro, a photosynthetic cyanobacteria, was cultured in a photo-bioreactor to produce sucrose which is then filtered and used to feed the second bioreactor culture, that of gluconacetobacteria, or Puddingpoke bacteria as it is known. The true breakthrough in the development of this device was the micro-homogoniser filtration head used to extract and filter the nano-cellulose from the culture before it forms a gellatinous solid within the culture, preventing further production.
Social Cultural Impact
The development of the Puddingpoke device allowed for the establishment of the existent nano-cellulose Industry, however the relative simplicity of the extraction process and the limitation of effective culture size allowed for localised nano material cottage industries to arise over the large scale off shore refinement of crude oil. This led not just to the diversification of applications of the material but also allowed for the development of local strains of nano-cellulose crystals with dispositions to certain applications such as the papplewick strain used predominantly in the production of pigment free paints.
This peculiarity of contemporary NCC production with the Puddingpoke device and it’s descendants, along with it’s infinitely renewable source mean nano-cellulose is set to outlive it’s sister wonder material of the modern age, that of crude oil as ever more applications are discovered every year.