Cellulose is a celluwin

Two young women grinned ear-to-ear as they stepped up on stage to accept 3000 euros in the form of a giant cheque, like those you see for glam purposes on television. But it wasn't a gameshow that they'd won, they hadn't correctly answered twenty obscure trivia questions under studio lights, and they certainly hadn't gotten lucky on Wheel of Fortune. Instead, they'd worked frantically for 48 hours with minimal sleep to design a backpack made from cellulose.

That's cellulose, not cellulite. It's not referring to the subcutaneous fat on human thighs; rather, it's the building blocks of plant cell walls. This stuff is found in abundance in wood, making up about 50% of its composition. It seems almost coincidental that Finland's major export is wood, and that one fifth of the wood grown in Finland doesn't get used. Even more coincidentally, the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) is doing quality research into how cellulose can be transformed into a high value product.

This was plain to see at the Design the Cellulose Hackathon held in August 2017, where designers were shown different cellulosic materials and given 48 hours to create. The inventors of the cellulose backpack, the grinning winners Anneli Auranen and Heta Kupsala, were announced at the Q&A session on the Materials of the Future just one month ago in September. Amongst highly creative and talented designers, they stood out in the competition because they had created something completely new. The two ladies improvised in a race to the finish by hot-pressing a cellulose sheet in between materials, melting the sheet and turning it into glue.

The Q&A itself was inspiring, forward looking and clever thinking; talking to the designers themselves brought it to yet another level. Even though the competition was over, the enthusiasm was still there and the cogs were still turning. They spoke animatedly and excitedly about their designs and the scope and future applications of their products. From multi-layer mattresses, to compact and modern furniture, to soundproofing foam, to shoes you could bury at the end of their lifetime to sprout flowers – cellulose was selling it.

When you can find an environment that cultivates ideas and innovation, the concepts and results that follow are often novel and a few can be developed to become the absolute pinnacle of human thought.  And with the growing wave of support for sustainability and bio economy, a fertile ground that celebrates both failure and success is particularly important. Keep an eye out for future developments – before you know it, the circular economy will be a reality.

Wood you believe it?

What do you with raggedy old clothes that you wouldn't even think of giving to charity? Generally, people bin them. But, just think – cotton is 90% cellulose. Advancements in technology now mean that cotton garments can be dissolved, made into a cellulose solution, turned into fibres, and then used to make new clothes.

Cellulose from Finland: http://cellulosefromfinland.fi/

The supermaterial of the future: http://www.vttresearch.com/media/news/cellulose-turning-into-a-supermaterial-of-the-future

Author information: Karen Khoo is the Information Officer at the Embassy of Finland. Opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect those of the Embassy of Finland in Canberra.


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