Research project involving use of cellulose nanofiber, found in green plant matter, wins University of Oregon student US$5,000 prize in statewide contest to develop non-toxic building products that could launch new Oregon companies

EUGENE, Oregon , September 13, 2013 () – When 21-year-old University of Oregon student Zander Eckblad first got curious about cellulose nanofiber -- which is found in green plant matter -- he didn't have lofty goals for it. He just had some questions about how different forms of the material could be used to solve various product design problems.

Now, Eckblad is a year into a project so promising that a panel of judges awarded him second place in a statewide contest to develop nontoxic building products that have the potential to launch new Oregon companies.

As part of his prize he will receive $5,000, which he will use to pursue specialized uses of the nanofiber, a type of wood pulp that, when treated at below freezing temperatures to remove moisture, has numerous potential uses that are environmentally friendly, he said.

"It (wasn't) until I came here and started Product Design that I got interested and invested," said Eckblad, who is about to start his senior year in the Product Design program at UO's Architecture and Allied Arts college. "I owe a lot to that school."

Last fall, he took a class called Experimental Materials with Wonhee Arndt, who required students to submit a proposal to the Oregon BEST contest.

Eckblad had heard about cellulose nanocrystals a couple years earlier. During his research for the class project he came across John Simonsen, an Oregon State University professor in wood science and engineering. Simonsen was "generous" with his time, Eckblad said, when the student was first learning about the possibilities of cellulose.

Another part of his prize in the Oregon BEST Red List Design Challenge is ongoing mentorship and coaching to help try to develop his idea into an Oregon-based company.

The goal of the contest, which began this year, is to find ideas with the potential to be commercially viable, according to the organizers, the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center and the Oregon-based International Living Future Institute.

Simonsen is now one of the mentors working with Eckblad -- and an ever-expanding team of undergraduates and instructors who are excited by the potential to develop a market for nanofiber cellulose.

Eckblad, who is from the San Francisco area, said he may end up decreasing his course load and delaying graduation in order to pursue the possibilities in nanofiber cellulose. If the time comes to launch a company, it makes the most sense to do it in Oregon, he said, building on industries that have a history here, including paper mills and logging.

"Right now it's pretty heavily researched, but there are no products using it," Eckblad said. "This insulation material is just the first glance kind of thing. This is just a look at what is possible with this material. ... It's cheap, it's lightweight and 100 percent sustainable and plays off Oregon's industries."

He said it might be premature to estimate, but the math he has done indicates using cellulose for insulation would be much less expensive to produce than fiberglass.

Products could be made from invasive species, yard waste, waste from logging, sawdust -- any cellulose byproduct that is not chemically treated, he said.

The energy-intensive part of the process is converting the original jelly-like substance into a durable, hard material by exposing it to really low temperatures and sucking the evaporated water out, leaving insulating air pockets, he said.

So far, Eckblad and his team have been using equipment not exactly designed for their purposes. Although they have not spoken in detail about how to spend the $5,000 prize, he said, they will probably use it to raise more money to invest in equipment.

"With this material, we can make a lot of great things," he said.

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