The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, in Madison, says it’s opening a $1.7 million pilot plant that will support an emerging market for wood products derived from nanotechnology.
The products could be stronger than Kevlar and lighter than fiberglass or carbon fiber. Those attributes have caught the attention of companies in the automotive, aerospace, electronics and medical-device industries as well as the military for use in lightweight armor and ballistic glass.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials measuring 100 nanometers or less in at least one dimension.
A human hair measures roughly 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter, according to the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Nanotechnology could enable the development of a wide range of products that would be cost-effective substitutes for nonrenewable materials used in the manufacture of metal and plastics.
It also could boost Wisconsin’s paper industry by offering a new, high-value raw material made from wood pulp.
“My interest here is to provide another product option for the paper industry because the industry is on hard times,” said Alan Rudie, a chemist and project leader of the nanotechnology program at the Forest Products Laboratory.
The pilot plant will supply nanocrystals to companies and universities that want to make materials from them or conduct their own experiments. For now, at least, it will employ just one person.
“Our product is the raw material at this point,” Rudie said. “Right now, there is no commercial source. So research programs have to spend a third of their time making the materials, which slows down research.”
Some of the wood-based materials are colorless and clear, in addition to being strong. They could be used to make bulletproof windows for the military, which has a keen interest in nanotechnology for armor.
The first commercialized product to come from the program will likely be a paper coating. That could happen in a year, Rudie said, and it will likely be several years before more advanced products come from the laboratory.
The program will make materials in kilogram quantities, something not readily available now. It will allow companies and universities to ramp up bigger projects because they will have the raw materials.
“They will be able to make larger sheets of composites, for example, so they can actually see how it performs,” Rudie said.
Eventually, nanotechnology could be used to make things such as lighter, stronger door panels for vehicles.
But while the Forest Products Laboratory wants to foster the technology, it doesn’t want to compete with businesses interested in producing the materials.
“We are part of the federal government, so we cannot compete against commercial companies. So if someone comes in and starts making these materials on a commercial level, we will have to get out of it,” Rudie said. That’s why, he added, the program has bought only equipment it can use for other purposes.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is involved in nanotechnology, developing things such as self-healing metals that can repair themselves. The healing is accomplished by including microscopic “balloons” in metals while they’re still in liquid form. The balloons burst if the finished metal product is damaged, causing the materials inside to leak out and fill the cracked areas.
Even bullet holes are healed, almost instantly, in self-healing polymers.
The university also has developed a method of making hybrid nanomaterials with custom behaviors that have been used in solar cells and are being tested by Johnson Controls Inc. for use in an improved lithium-ion battery.