Nanomaterials – which can be 100,000 times thinner than a strand of hair – are increasingly the basis of innovative products producing amazing advancements in fields like technology and medicine. But these materials are so tiny, there are concerns about the effects they could have on human health and the environment. They can be found in everything from sunscreen to lumber, and they’re set to make a big impact on the construction industry for applications like ultra-durable concrete and self-cleaning windows.
The U.S. Forest Service is working on a project that could be a major step forward for greener, more sustainable nanomaterials. For the past three years, researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have been developing cellulose nano-crystals made from wood fibers.
These fibers offer incredible strength equivalent to that of Kevlar, and they’re also surprisingly clear so they can be used for applications like composite windshields and other forms of reinforced glass.
“There are ways to engineer materials in advance to make them environmentally benign,” says Pedro Alvarez, the co-author of a study on the potential risks of nanomaterials. “There are also methods that allow us to consider the entire lifecycle of a product and to ensure that it can be recycled or reused rather than thrown away. The key is to understand the specific risks and implications of the product before it it is widely used.”