Totte Niittylä, Associate Professor at the Umeå Plant Science Centre, has received a 5-year grant with a budget of little over 10 million SEK from the Swedish Research Council Formas. His project ‘Nanowood’ is an interdisciplinary project in collaboration with Kristiina Oksman from Luleå University of Technology (LTU).
‘Nanowood’ combines basic wood biology and material science. The aim of the project is to find and optimize the best Swedish wood source for nanocellulose production. The focus is set on spruce as the most important tree for the Swedish forest industry and on hybrid aspen because of its potential in Swedish plantation forestry.
Currently one of the biggest challenges in nanocellulose production is related to the efficient separation of cellulose fibrils from the raw material. Although different raw material resources for fibrillation have been investigated there is very limited knowledge on how the chemical composition of wood is affecting the yield and final nanocellulose properties.
“We aim to identify genetic factors influencing the preparation and properties of nanocellulose,” says Totte Niittylä. “The possibility of using modern tree breeding tools to improve the suitability of wood for nanocellulose production is completely unexplored. It is great that with funding of ‘Nanowood’ we can now start to fill this gap.”
Cellulose nanocrystals are the smallest constituents of wood fibres. They build up nanofibers which are bundled to cellulose microfibrils that in turn form the wood fibres. Cellulose nanofibers and crystals have excellent mechanical and thermal properties and low weight compared to other nanoparticles, and they are environmentally friendly. They can be used as a functional additive or reinforcement in different composite polymers, and as absorbent or membrane for water cleaning to name some interesting possibilities.
From left to right: Tree trunk, wood fibre walls, purified cellulose microfibrils, cellulose nanofibers and cellulose nanocrystals. Figure: Kristiina Oksman
Totte Niittylä started his group at the Umeå Plant Science Centre in 2009. In his research, he focuses on carbohydrate transport and incorporation of carbohydrates into wood, especially in connection with cellulose biosynthesis. His group could show that the properties of wood and cellulose can be modified by changing carbohydrate metabolism and transport.
His collaboration partner, Kristiina Oksman, is Professor at the Department of Engineering Sciences and Mathematics at LTU and she is also Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. She specialises in bio-based nanocomposites and is well established in the field of nanostructured biomaterials and bio-composites.
‘Nanowood’ is one of 28 projects granted by Formas within this fourth call for the program ‘Forest raw material and biomass’. Formas is investing in total 230 million SEK during the years 2016 till 2020, money received from the Government. The aim is to reinforce the development towards a bio-based and sustainable economy and to bring Sweden to the forefront in this global development.
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Formas press release: 4th call within the program 'Forest raw material and biomass'