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Cellulose fibers as strong as steel created for the first time

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Ropes as strong as any aluminum alloy or steel and any product that is presently made from wood fibers can now be made with a completely “green” process. The development is the combined work of Fredrik Lundell from the Wallenberg Wood Science Center at the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology KTH in Stockholm, Sweden and Dr. Stephan Roth from the German Electron Synchrotron national research center in Germany. The development was reported in the June 2, 2014, edition of the journal Nature Communications.

The technique involves the nanometer-sized fibers that make up cellulose called fibrils. The fibrils are fed into a high-speed stream of water through a very tiny channel. The fibrils are aligned with each other by water jets positioned on each side of the channel. Salt water spray produces greater adhesion of the fibrils to each other. A very tough and strong fiber results that can be air dried in a few minutes. The resulting fibers were tested and found to be as strong as any steel or aluminum presently produced.

The process can use fibrils from waste paper as a material source. The entire process is ecologically inert and produces no waste. The researchers claim that alteration of the channel size and the speed of flow can allow the process to produce any shape or size of material. This development could replace every known steel or aluminum product presently manufactured.

Once in mass production, the production of a competitor to the steel and aluminum industry that is cheaper and much more ecologically friendly may produce a reduction in the metals business. One might anticipate a fluctuation in prices and a similar political battle to preserve the metals industry like the present war to preserve coal and fossil fuels. This process could be an investment that pays off in the long run when the world cannot afford to make steel.