Water’s solubility characteristics change when interacting with cellulose, according to NC State University researchers

Recent studies from North Carolina State University reveal that water’s solubility properties can change based on its interactions with other substances. When water interacts with cellulose, for example, it can form layered shells that can control the material’s chemical reactions and physical characteristics. This discovery has significant implications for the development of more sustainable and efficient cellulose-based products.

Cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth, is used in a variety of applications, from medical bandages to electronic devices. However, processing cellulose typically involves trial and error and the use of harsh chemicals. To develop better methods for processing cellulose, scientists must gain a deeper understanding of its most fundamental interactions, such as those with water.

Lucian Lucia, a professor of forest biomaterials and chemistry, collaborated with Jim Martin, a chemistry professor who specializes in water’s properties as a solvent, to investigate water’s interactions with cellulose.

According to Martin, water can alter its characteristics based on the substances it interacts with, giving it a wide range of solubility properties. In an opinion piece accompanying Lucia’s study, Martin discusses the unique properties of water as a solvent.

According to Jim Martin, water’s nature can be altered by the solutes dissolved in it and their concentrations. He compares the continuum of sugar dissolving in water to the transformation from Kool-Aid to hard candy. The researchers at North Carolina State University, led by Lucian Lucia, wanted to understand how water’s interactions with cellulose affected the material’s physical and chemical properties.

The researchers manipulated different types of wood fibers and observed how water interacted with them. They discovered that at lower water contents, the molecular interactions between water and the fibers created bridging structures within the material, making it less flexible. They also found that water could form shells around the fibers that could stack like Russian dolls. The number of layers dictated the tightness or looseness of the bridging structures, impacting the material’s hardness and softness.

Lucia and his team plan to continue studying the variety of bonds that water forms within cellulose structures to better understand how water can be manipulated to design better products and processes. They believe that comprehending the fundamental principles of water’s interactions with cellulose will enable the development of innovative approaches for everything from drug delivery to designing electronics.

The research paper, “Computational and experimental insights into the molecular architecture of water-cellulose networks,” and the accompanying editorial, “Water under the influence of solutes: on the non-innocence of a universal solvent,” are both published in Matter.

Source: North Carolina State University

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