Scientists have long seen the potential in nanocellulose–a material whose strength and stiffness make it ideal for use in everything from lightweight armor to support structures for organs during transplants, as well as a raw material for biofuel. But the problem has always been that it’s hard to come by: only a few kinds of bacteria are able to secrete the stuff, and usually in small, unstable amounts.
But at the American Chemical Society’s annual conference, held earlier this month, researchers announced that they’re at the point where they’re ready to start making nanocellulose in larger amounts–by using a genetically engineered blue-green algae that only needs sunlight and water as fuel, while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the air.
“If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever,” R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., the lead researcher said in a press release. “We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products.”
The breakthrough came when Brown’s team figured out how to merge the best attributes from the two most promising sources of nanocellulose: the algae (called cyanobacteria) and another bacterium (called A. xylinum), which is able to link nanocellulose molecules together and crystalize them into stable chains. Through genetic engineering, they were able to pull out A. xylinum’s best characteristics and invest the blue-green algae with them.
Now, Brown and his team are scaling up their operations, taking the algae-farming from a lab to outdoor facilities. But significantly, they may have bigger challenges to overcome than just the science before nanocellulose production can truly develop: The current low price of fracked natural gas. As long as that’s available, it might take a while before investment in this new material really begins in earnest.