Nanocellulose is made of pulp by grinding or chemical processing. The resulting extremely small fibres form a pulp with significantly different properties.
Conventional pulp fibres are transformed into thousands of smaller nanofibres, which means that their combined surface area is enormous compared to that of the original pulp fibre.
The large surface area improves the adherence between the fibres and so produces a pulp with great strength. This allows completely new types of products to be made from nanocellulose, replacing plastics, synthetic fibres and chemical coatings, for example. On the other hand, it retains the good properties of pulp, such as lightness and biodegradability.
Pirjo Kääriäinen, Professor of Design Driven Fibre Innovation at the Aalto University, describes a research project aiming to find new uses for Finnish raw materials. So far the project has turned nanocellulose into picnic chairs, bicycle frames and components of shoes made completely of pulp.
Kääriäinen says that having designers participate in materials research has made it possible to include input from consumers, because tangible prototypes give hands-on experience of the feel and functionality of the materials.
Pulp-based products could replace plastic or gypsum components used in interiors. According to Kääriäinen, pulp could also be used in 3D printing instead of plastic in the future.
Kääriäinen estimates that brand-name shoes made from nothing but pulp could be on the market within 4-5 years. Then again, some of the materials researched may only reach industrial production in about ten years.