Invasive Pest Tunicate Finds New Role as Sustainable Material

first_img Scientists Use Light to Make New Materials DanceNew, safe packaging metal draws inspiration from strength of pomelo fruit There is more to recycling than separating paper, plastics, and glass: Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are reusing two materials to form a diverse new one.As described in a paper published last week, surplus wood pulp and dried pieces of an invasive exotic pest can be converted into a flexible, sustainable, non-toxic, and UV light-reflective component for use in a variety of applications.Scientists hope their unlikely marriage of wood pulp (typically used to make paper) and the dehydrated carcasses of marine animal tunicate will soon find its place in food packaging, biomedical devices, building construction, and automobile design.“The idea of making useful products out of wood pulp has long intrigued a lot of people in many different industries,” Jeff Gilman, who leads the composites project team at NIST, said in a statement.And it seems the Institute has an answer.Their solution: a concept known as the “Bouligand structure,” in which molecules stack up in a twisted shape that allows for a level of resistance against cracking.The teeny spiral staircase-like twists deflects the force of impact through a series of detours, leaving the material intact and functional.Wood, of course, does not have a natural Bouligand structure. But give the pulp an acid bath to remove its lignin and amorphous cellulose, and you’re left with a milky solution that dries to form a new material with—you guessed it—a Bouligand structure.On its own, however, the pulp-derived films are brittle and don’t hold much weight. Enter tunicate: a pest in some countries, and a delicious treat in others.In many parts of Asia, the brown aquatic creatures are cooked and served in spicy sauces. But without natural predators, their overgrown populations can clog boat engines and fishing gear, outcompete native fish, reduce healthy plankton populations, and ruin productive shellfish beds, NIST reported.Harvesting them for food seems like a good option: Like oysters, the tunicate’s insides are considered the tasty bit; their exteriors typically get tossed out. It’s the invertebrates’ inner structure—made of long, highly crystalline nanocellulose—that NIST researchers are after.“Tunicates have stuck out as the gold standard for their physical properties,” according to Virginia Tech University associate professor Johan Foster, who gathered and supplied tunicates for NIST from western France, where the creatures are considered a nuisance.Through a series of tests, scientists was able to identify the tunicate/wood composite’s exact point of greatest toughness.“If you put a little tunicate into the wood pulp composite, it makes it a little stiffer, and it doesn’t break as quickly and becomes more flexible,” lead study author Bharath Natarajan said.“Put in 10 percent and it’s twice as strong,” he continued. “If your mixture is 30 percent tunicate and 70 percent wood pulp, the resulting composite is 15 [to] 20 times tougher. But after that, you really don’t see an improvement in strength, and there is a reduction in toughness.”Moving forward, Natarajan and his team will continue to look for new uses for their mixture in the manufacture of sustainable, lightweight automobiles and aerospace vehicles, among other products. Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.center_img Stay on targetlast_img

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