Let’s learn about cellulose

Cellulose could improve everything from ice cream to cars to construction on Mars

Cellulose, the main building block of plant cell walls, could be the secret ingredient to better ice cream, cars, construction materials and more.

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Cellulose is all around us. The main building block of plant cell walls, it’s nature’s most abundant polymer. It makes up about 90 percent of cotton and 50 percent of wood. Today, cellulose is used to make clothes, cardboard, coffee filters and countless other everyday items. But scientists are coming up with creative new uses for the substance. Here are just a few things that could be made better with a bit of cellulose:

Ice cream: Ice cream comes with a time limit. Eat it too slowly, and you’re slurping soup. But a dash of cellulose could help people savor ice cream for longer. Cellulose molecules expand as they dissolve in water. So, adding cellulose to food can make it thicker. In one experiment, mixing cellulose from banana stalks into ice cream helped it melt more slowly. Cellulose could also keep ice crystals from growing inside ice cream while stored in the freezer. This could keep frozen treats from turning gritty.

Cars: Cellulose gives plant stems and tree branches their strength and structure. Some engineers want to use that sturdiness to build stronger materials for cars and other products. And one team used tiny crystals of cellulose to make a material as hard and tough as bone. Such strong stuff could someday replace pollutive, plastic-based materials.

Glitter: Glitter isn’t just hard to clean up around the house. It dirties the environment. That’s because glitter is often made from toxic compounds or microplastics. But a new glitter made of cellulose could be nontoxic and biodegradable. In the new material, tiny cellulose fibers are arranged in structures like spiral staircases. Those spirals reflect different wavelengths of light, creating structural colors. Bits of that glitz could be added to makeup, paints and packaging.

Coolers and coffee cups: Cellulose may be the secret ingredient to greener foams, too. Styrofoam is a lightweight but sturdy insulator. That has made it useful for protecting packages during shipping. Styrofoam is also used to make coolers, coffee cups and other containers that need to keep heat in or out. But Styrofoam is made of plastic. Now, researchers have shown that a cellulose foam is a promising alternative. It’s just as strong as Styrofoam and a better insulator. Best yet, it’s biodegradable.

Martian architecture: No one has ever set foot on Mars. But some scientists are already planning for a Red Planet settlement. Since it would be impractical to haul construction materials from Earth, one idea is to build using Martian soil. One group recently showed that mixing fake Martian soil with cellulose created an “ink” that could be 3-D printed into buildings. Such a setup could make construction on Mars easier and literally dirt cheap.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Cellulose may keep ice cream from turning gritty in your freezer Adding nanocrystals extracted from wood avoids the growth of ice crystals, keeping your treat smooth and creamy. (5/4/2021) Readability: 6.8

This glitter gets its color from plants, not a synthetic plastic In the new material, tiny arrangements of cellulose reflect light in specific ways to create vibrant hues in an environmentally friendly glitter. (12/20/2021) Readability: 7.0

‘Frozen smoke’ could protect electronics from annoying static A fluffy material made from cellulose nanofibers and silver nanowires can protect electronic devices from disrupting interference. (10/28/2020) Readability: 7.9

Here’s why cotton, which is about 90 percent cellulose, is such a useful material.

Explore more

Scientists Say: Cellulose

Scientists Say: Polymer

Explainer: What are polymers?

Engineers borrow a tree’s cellulose to toughen new materials

How popcorn got its pop

Banana plant extract can slow how fast ice cream melts

How to make window ‘glass’ from wood

A soil-based ‘concrete’ could make buildings green, even on Mars

Trees may become the key to ‘greener’ foam products

Activities

Word find

Cellulose can do more for ice cream than just keep it from melting or getting grainy. Adding a modified type of cellulose, called methyl cellulose, to the recipe can create hot ice cream. It’s a bizarre twist on the treat that is solid when hot but melts as it cools to room temperature. In this experiment from Science Buddies, make your own hot ice cream and see how adding more methyl cellulose changes how it melts.

Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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