The great challenge of materials engineering lies in achieving a product that is strong and extensible at the same time to reduce the use of plastic.
Until now, it was something impossible. If the stiffness of a material was increased, extensibility was lost, and vice versa.
But Finnish researchers have solved the problem by drawing inspiration from nature and using natural ingredients to create a truly revolutionary product.
They invented a unique combination of materials that exceeds current synthetic and natural products in firmness, resistance and extensibility and is also biodegradable.
Cobweb and wood
In Finland, technicians and engineers from Aalto University and the VTT Technical Research Center bonded wood cellulose fibers to the protein of cobweb silk.
The result is a very firm, elastic and resistant material that could well replace plastic in multiple uses.
Future applications for this revolutionary material include bio-based composites, medical products, surgical fibers, the textile industry, packaging and wrapping.
"Nature offers excellent, readily available raw materials for the development of new materials, such as the rigid cellulose and the strong, flexible silk that were used in the research," says Professor Markus Linder.
The advantage of both materials is that, unlike plastic, they are biodegradable and do not harm the environment or constitute a potential health risk like microplastics.
Materials and methods
One of the natural products they used was birch wood, a tree abundant in the forests of northern Europe, and they combined it with synthetically cloned silk protein.
Cellulose forms the stiffening element and silk the resistant matrix.
"We are currently working on the production of new composite materials such as implants, impact resistant objects and other products," concluded Pezhman Mohammadi.
The research project is part of a work developed by the Center of Excellence in Molecular Engineering of Hybrid Biosynthetic Materials (Hyber).