Here is the full transcript of bio-nanotechnologist Vegar Ottesen’s TEDx Talk on Nanocellulose: It’s a Wrap! TEDxTrondheim conference. This event occurred on October 22, 2017.
Vegar Ottesen – Bio-nanotechnologist
Plastics. They’re everywhere around us. It’s in our clothing, in our furniture, in our structures, even in our soap. And it’s not that hard to understand why.
Plastics are very cheap. They’re easy to shape into whatever you could want. And they have a lot of exciting properties that make them very useful for us in different situations.
For that reason, we also make a lot of it. In 2015 alone, we made about 322 metric tons. That’s in one year. The equivalent of about 44,110 Eiffel Towers, by weight. From this massive amount of plastics – and we produce more and more every year, by the way – about 40% is used to package other things. Like candy. This wrapper is empty.
That happens rather quickly once I get my hands on some. But its contents are gone, while the wrapping persists and persists and persists. This will last for centuries unless it’s burned or recycled.
Why do we use a packaging that lasts for generations to protect a product that lasts mere minutes? It’s absurd! We need a solution. And that’s where my research comes into the picture. Because I am a bionanotechnologist; I work on nanomaterials that can be from nature. And the nanomaterial I have been working on recently is a potential replacement for plastics in food packaging.
And what’s really neat about it: you don’t even have to travel far to find it. You only have to go out your door. From practically any plant – that can be the Norwegian forests; we have a lot of those, right? Or it can be waste products from agriculture – we can produce something that’s called nanocellulose. This consists of tiny, tiny, tiny fibers, tens of thousands of times thinner than a human hair. And when we produce it in the lab, it looks a little bit like this gel and exactly like the gel in the picture behind me.
Now, this gel, like nanocellulose is perfectly safe to eat. It’s horribly dull, though. There’s no flavor. But at least it’s safe. And – added bonus – it’s calorie-free. And while that might appeal – and does appeal – to diet food producers myself and my research team, we are very excited about it once it dries because when it dries, the tiny nanofibers that are in this gel, they’re attracted to one another and they bind very, very tightly together.
How tightly? Tight enough to where oxygen molecules can’t readily go from one side of the nanocellulose to the other. It’s even better at stopping oxygen than plastics, and that’s important because oxygen can degrade the food we want to store. That’s one of the reasons we use plastics in food packaging: to protect from the oxygen in the air.
Nanocellulose does the job better than plastics. Unfortunately, it’s also very, very wet. Nanocellulose is typically around 99% water when we make it in the lab. And it doesn’t exactly run very easily. So we have to remove all that water, and that takes energy, which costs money.
And plastics are cheap. So if we want to compete against plastics, we need to do something. Thankfully, since this is better than plastics, we don’t need very much. A very, very, very thin coating is enough. Thinner than a human hair, easily.
So what if we take a thin coating of nanocellulose on top of something else that’s biodegradable, renewable and recyclable? The resulting product would be significant improvement over plastics, right? Well, what if we take paper or cardboard? That fits the bill. And that’s exactly what we decided to do, we being researchers from RISE PFI. Those are the guys who led us. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where I’m hired. And Åbo Akademi in Finland.
Since the challenge is rather big, we decided to make our everyday life a little bit harder by choosing a very low-quality cardboard as the thing we wanted to coat. You can see it in the microscopy image behind me. My thought was that if we can coat that mess with nanocellulose – uneven, big pores, really crappy – then we can coat pretty much anything.
So how did it go? Did we manage? Oh, yeah. We managed. We managed even better than we had hoped. We got a very smooth and even coating with nary a hole to be seen. It was very smooth even though this was just a trial run. If we are to talk in analogies, we could compare the uncoated cardboard with a sieve.
You know, the air just rushes through; there’s hardly any resistance. And once we coat it, the analogy that I would choose would be a brick wall. It stopped the air dead. So we had a pretty good proof of concept that could be used and can be used in a large industrial setting. It’s a pretty good step.
And what’s even better is we didn’t need a lot of nancellulose to do it. This image shows one of our successful coatings. And we had two micrometers. That was all we needed. That’s about 50 times thinner than an average human hair.
And even though it was that thin, despite the surface being that challenging, we got a smooth and even coating with few holes, if any. This testifies to the robustness of nanocellulose as well as its versatility. It can be used to coat a large range of things, successfully. That’s very nice.
We have a good proof of concept, right? But are we there yet? What if we looked in our hypothetical crystal ball and tried to see what the future could hold? I’m certain that future packaging will degrade fast.
We have to get a better solution than plastics today. We can’t have a packaging that lasts for significantly longer than most human empires have done in order to package candy. And it’s quite possible that the future coating will be based, in part or wholly, on nanocellulose. We’ve at least shown that it is possible. And it is my hope and my belief that even if it’s not nanocellulose that is the future of packaging, we will find a future where we can throw our packaging in with the garbage, perhaps in with the recycling or even in with the compost without much of a thought about it.
Tomorrow’s packaging will not last until your grandchildren have grandchildren. Its lifetime will be measured in months. And hopefully, what I have shown you today is a little bit of hope on the gloomy path of today’s wasteful reality. Thank you.