Is green nanocomposite-based wood an eco-friendly product?

Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

I believe, in this era, human beings can fully ascertain what nanotechnology is. Nanotechnology is basically an evolved and highly-developed innovative technology in the form of nano-sized products or machines (1-100 nanometers). There are two crucial traits of the technology, which are that products have higher (or the highest possible) strength properties compared to preliminary materials, and that the products are very small-scale, namely nano size.

Most expertise and research that concerns nanotechnology also campaigns for green composite-based nanotechnology. Researchers argue that because nanotechnology-based products are characterized by and isolated from natural fibers, they are environmentally friendly.

We can gauge the interest of human beings in benefiting from nanotechnology, but most people don’t realize that nanotechnology has existed since long ago. The Big Bang, for instance, was one of the natural implications of the technology. However, nanotechnology can also occur artificially through the associated high-level technology.

Apparently, nanotechnology has only recently been known about by societies of this decade, in which green nanotechnology is a booming part of human life. Green nanotechnology can be achieved by manufacturing green nanocomposite-derived lignocellulosic materials like wood fibers. Why do we use lignocelluloses from wood? Wood can produce renewable ultra-long fibers, which have super-strength properties both chemically and physically.

Due to the abundance of wood fibers in the world, synthetic fibers from non-renewable resources are substituted by natural fibers, especially those from wood. In terms of producing nanocomposite-based wood, we can say there are two sides of such green products, which are their biodegradable and renewable nature. Furthermore, such products also give high strength and stiffness combined with low weight. Due to their superior nature, most of these products are used for fabricating optical electronics, nanopapers, medical remedies, solar cells, and panel sensors.

In utilizing wood as the main filler and reinforcing material of nanoproducts, we know we should consider what kinds of wood are used — either from natural or plantation forests. In accordance with technology and innovation, wood waste can also be utilized, which can at least minimize deforestation by optimizing wood resources and reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) by avoiding wood decomposition.

We always see the benefits of products without seeing the negative impacts of using them. In terms of nanocomposite-derived wood fibers, there is a non eco-friendly side to the products. What are these? There are two opinions on the negative sides of nanocomposites.

First, the technology used to fabricate nanocomposites is clearly very high-tech, including ultrasonication, chemical pulping, homogenization (grinding), acid hydrolysis, steam explosion and so forth. In these processes, high levels of energy consumption are necessary. The most challenging part of utilizing energy, especially electricity, is related to climate change. Furthermore, there is a reversible use of energy that occurs when converting big-sized material to nano-size, and nano-sized to big products.

Second, one of the ways to extract nanocellulose fibers from wood needs chemical pace. One way is by using chemical substances, which are mostly not eco-friendly as they pollute the environment. For instance, bleaching and pulping chemical substances (such as NaOH, H2O2 or H2SO4) bring about water, land and air pollution by being H2T1 (harmful, hazardous and toxic). In addition, these residues can affect human health.

The imperative thing is that these products — nanocomposites — are so expensive, and only privileged people are able to access and utilize them. So, from the above explanation, can we really say that nanocomposite-based wood (natural fibers) can be applicable and eco-friendly? We should propel youth and academicians to develop effective technology to address the two key hurdles above. By giving innovative solutions to these hurdles, there will at least be benefits for our next generation and the environment.

Achmad Solikhin is part of the Indonesian Green Action Forum (IGAF).

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