The world's hottest new supermaterial isn't as fancy as you might think; in fact, it's produced by feeding wood pulp to algae. The result, nanocellulose, is amazingly light, super-strong, and conducts electricity. Unsurprisingly, that versatility lends it to plenty of fantastic possible applications. Here are some of the most exciting.
Because nanocellulose is made from a tightly packed array of needle-like crystals, it's incredibly tough stuff. In fact, it has a strength-to-weight ratio that's eight times higher than stainless steel, which makes it perfect for building future body armour that's both strong and light.
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Because nanocellulose is transparent, light and strong, it can be used in place of plastic or glass. That's why Pioneer Electronics is experimenting with it to make some of the most insanely thin — and flexible — screens of the future.
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A bit like graphene, the nanostructure of nanocellulose can be used to create fancy filters that can purify all kinds of liquids. That might mean making saltwater drinkable — but it could also be used to filter out blood cells during transfusions, or even trap dangerous chemicals in cigarettes.
Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox
Swap the — usually thick and stiff — separators inside batteries for something made of thin, flexible nanocellulose, and all of a sudden you end up with a mobile power source that bends a little. Combine it with a graphene shell, and you might just have the flexible battery we've all been dreaming of.
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Because it's so strong and light, nanocellulose can be crafted into foam that can support more than 10,000 times its own weight. As a result, it's incredibly porous and super-absorbent. This stuff could make the fanciest wound-dressings and tampons you could ever possibly imagine.
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Because nanocellulose is actually quite cheap — it's made by algae, after all — it should be possible to use it in serious bulk. In fact, Ford reckons it'll be able to create so many components out of the stuff — from body panels to interior trim — that it could shave 340kg off the weight of its cars. Prepare for your gas bill to plummet.
Image by Ford
In the process of having algae chomp through wood pulp to make nanocellulose, it's possible to rig the process — by tweaking the DNA of the helpful little bugs — to create biofuel at the same time. OK, technically not a product of nanocellulose, but an amazingly useful byproduct of its production.
Image by Steve Jurveston