Nanocellulose Binders for Fibre Preforms: Creating the Building Blocks of High Performance Sustainable Composites

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Department of Chemical Engineering


We have developed using our EPRSC grant (EP/F032005/1) an elegant, intrinsically scalable and cost-effective technology for binding fibres together in order to create an in-plane non-woven fibre mat, utilising bacterial nanocellulose - itself a structural reinforcement, with no extra chemical steps involved during the production. The invention was originally developed for binding natural fibres - such as sisal and hemp - to create "truly green", hierarchical composites. Bacterial cellulose (BC) is currently produced on commercial scale (10t/a) for cosmetic applications by fzmb GmbH. BC has very impressive properties, both in paper form (15 GPa tensile modulus) and as an individual nanofibre (114 GPa Young's modulus). Alternatively, nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) is also available at the pilot scale. There is sufficient evidence in the literature that nanocellulose nanocomposites with much improved properties can be made. In addition to this, it has been shown that hierarchical, i.e. fibre reinforced, nanocomposites can be produced using BC. The previous work has resulted in two patents. The proposed project will demonstrate a slurry dipping or "paper-making" process to produce short (non-woven) fibre preforms. The advantage of our process is that short, long and even continuous fibres can be utilised to produce fibre preforms, which can be utilised in conventional composite making processes. The fibres, which can be used can be either be natural or synthetic. The ideal candidates for this project are fibres that can only with difficulties be formed in to mechanically strong fibre preforms with the required strength for downstream handling. We will focus on scaling up our development of producing fibre preforms and provide a range of value-added properties to this technology. Examples will be selected to satisfy the requirement of the industry and to stimulate new applications for fibre reinforced (nano)composites. We believe that our technology can be licensed to composites manufacturers who will benefit from a new generation of value added products and a major competitive advantage.

Planned Impact

This Follow-on Fund is designed to translate our invention of producing mechanically robust fibre preforms and hierarchical nanocomposites from the proof-of-concept scientific and engineering stage at the fundamental level into commercial development. Our industrial supporters/partners, APC Composite and Formax, will provide a detailed understanding of the materials, design, process and application requirements of the fibre preforms and composites to be developed and thereby will guide our research and help to avoid common pitfalls encountered with early stage composite applications. The partner will help to demonstrate already within the time frame of the project commercial relevance by designing and manufacturing an early stage demonstrator: a chair, which can be used in a hotel lobby or in racing sport applications. In this case it all about the appearance; the composites have to be free of surface cracks and voids. The excitement of our partners for our idea paired with their expertise and their customer's demands and the short term nature of this FoF project with the clear stir towards potential commercial exploitation does provide strong confidence that they will engage with us and help to make this project a success. Our partners will benefit directly by gaining access to new technology, either through directly licensing intellectual property developed during the programme, or through subsequent co-development projects. Technology transfer will be facilitated by specialist teams at Imperial Innovations Ltd., who have extensive experience in balancing the need to protect inventions while encouraging commercial exploitation. Our partners will therefore gain know-how allowing them to develop products, leading to a competitive advantage, and ultimately, wealth creation, which will befit society. More generally society will benefit from the emergence of high performance sustainable composites utilising waste products and renewable raw materials. The weight reduction achieved by using more composites for instance in transport applications will offer improved fuel efficiency.
Through commercialisation activities, the Imperial will benefit from additional revenue that they might invest to bring forward other new technologies.
Composite materials have a great exposure and are therefore high profile. With the success of the project, the UK will be making a valuable contribution to the increased usage of composites, which will enhance our reputation in this area of research.


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Lee K (2014) On the use of nanocellulose as reinforcement in polymer matrix composites in Composites Science and Technology

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Lee KY (2014) Manufacturing of robust natural fiber preforms utilizing bacterial cellulose as binder. in Journal of visualized experiments : JoVE

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Mautner A (2016) Phosphorylated nanocellulose papers for copper adsorption from aqueous solutions in International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology

Description We developed a technology to create structural fibre preforms using nanocellulose as structural and sole binder. This was demonstrated for natural and carbon fibres. Such preforms are robust and can be used without a matrix, or be further impregnated by thermoplastic or thermosetting resins to create random fibre composites with attractive mechanical properties.
Exploitation Route Our findings are currently being used to create novel packaging materials and green composites for display applications. A designer has taken up our process to create designer plates and display items. Furthermore, a HongKong based company has taken up the idea to develop innovative packing solutions for food products, which are based on a combination of nanocellulose and pulp fibres.
Sectors Creative Economy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

Description This technology developed in this project has received significant attention from UK automotive industry (incl. Jaguar Land Rover, International Automotive Components Group Ltd and Magna International Inc.) to manufacture renewable structural composite components. There are ongoing discussion with Magna International Inc. (via Imperial Innovation, ICL's Technology Transfer Office) to produce a demonstration panel. Moreover, the findings in this project has also been used by RCA's design products team to produce cellulose-based reshapable materials.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Description EPSRC/Ionic Liquid Biorefining of Lignocellulose to Sustainable Polymers
Amount £2,524,593 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/K014676/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2013 
End 01/2018
Description EU FP7 NanoSelect
Amount € 700,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 280519 
Organisation European Commission 
Department Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 02/2012 
End 01/2016
Description Carbon fibre recycling 
Organisation Formax
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Investigating the applicability of our binder technology to recycle short (waste) carbon fibres. Potentially patentable methods for producing short recycled carbon fibre reinforced polymer composites.
Start Year 2012
Description Working with UPM Kymmene 
Organisation UPM-Kymmene Corporation
Country Finland 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Utilising their pilot scale nanofibrillated cellulose in composite application.
Start Year 2012
Title Nanocellulose surface coated support material 
Description The invention relates to a process for the production of a surface coated support material wherein said process comprises contacting a support material with an aqueous dispersion of nanocellulose. The surface coated support material can be used in a composite material. The invention therefore further relates to the surface coated support material per se, a composite comprising the material, a process for the production of the composite material and an article produced from the composite material. 
IP Reference WO2012049198 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2011
Licensed Commercial In Confidence
Impact Our invention allowed for to engage with Formax UK in a follow on grant and to explore further applications of nanocellulose in composites. A designer uses our process to create novel artwork and display items.
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This is an invited oral presentation at the 2013 ACS spring meeting in New Orleans.

After the talk, we have published this work in the Journal of visualised experiments (JOVE) under the title "Manufacturing Of Robust Natural Fiber Preforms Utilizing Bacterial Cellulose as Binder"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2013
Description Nanocellulose on display at the London Science Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The display is due to run for at least three months. More information can be found on the Science Museum Website, along with a short interview with Professor Bismarck.

The public was rather surprised by how versatile cellulose is in our everyday life.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Regenerated cellulose fibre (Cordenka) reinforced thermoplastic: A novel route for manufacturing sustainable composite 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Regenerated cellulose fibre (Cordenka) reinforced thermoplastic: A novel route for manufacturing sustainable composite.
This is an oral presentation at the 2012 BioEnvironmental Polymer Society Meeting held in Denton, Texas.
The outcome from this research was also presented where we have participated as one of the forum panelist in the EuroNanoforum held from 18th to 20th June 2013 in Dublin, Ireland.
Furthermore, an oral presentation on the topic of hierarchical regenerated celllose fibre reinforced polyhydroxylbutyrate was given at the 2013 BioEnvironmental Polymer Society Meeting held in Warwick, UK.

We have had a few interests from our partners in VTT Technical Centre of Finland and a keen interest from Transfercenter for Kunstsofftechnik GmbH, Austria on this work. A few representatives from both companies visited our facilities in ICL.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013