Editor’s note: Nanocellulose art by Intermedia students will be on public display on August 24th from 4:30-6:30pm at the Wells Conference Center.
Nanocellulose is a malleable material. In a mixture that is 97% water, nanocellulose looks like yogurt or paste. When freeze-dried, it has the consistency of Styrofoam. It is completely dry like a plastic tile.
The University of Maine is at the forefront of the development and use of nanocellulose for scientific applications in the Center for Process Development. Now, thanks to a partnership with Intermedia Programs, UMaine is forging a new frontier in the use of nanocellulose in art.
Graduate students in the Intermedia Programs partner with the Center for Process Development to use nanocellulose as a material for art and creative projects. Not only does the collaboration give artists a non-toxic and innovative material to experiment with – one that can be used by even more artists in the future – but it can also help scientists learn more about this cutting-edge material.
Colleen Walker, director of the Center for Process Development, says it all started when artists started calling her lab asking if they could buy nanocellulose. This was not an emergency inquiry; the center regularly distributes samples like this for research purposes. Walker says that because of its production capabilities, the facility is one of the only ones in the world that distributes nanocellulose by the pound (typically at $75 per pound worth in a 5-gallon bucket).
“There are companies on the commercial side that sell technology so that organizations can produce their own materials. But it’s a multi-million dollar investment,” says Walker. “We are bridging that gap. We normally produce 300 pounds of dry material per batch, but we will be able to produce two to four tons per day with our new system.”
Still, Walker began to notice a pattern of artists wanting nanocellulose. Even the research manager at the Process Development Center, Donna Johnson, had experimented with the material in her own artistic pursuits in jewelry, fabric art, and dyes.
Then, one fateful day, Augusta Sparks Farnham, a graduate student in intermediate studies, showed up looking for nanocellulose to use in her assignments.
Farnum had been making art for decades before joining the Intermediate Studies program, but said she recently felt drained by the art world, specifically the lack of sustainability in art materials and practices. When she learned about nanocellulose in all its biodegradable, non-toxic glory, she was relieved of that feeling.
“I can do something and if it doesn’t work, and instead of putting it away for the rest of my life, I can put it back in the forest and it will decompose,” Farnham says. “Coming from the art world, that’s not true of most things. You are dealing with plastics and chemicals. Nanocellulose is a wonderful gift.
Instead of simply sending Farnum on her way with her bucket of nanocellulose, Walker began asking questions about the use of nanocellulose in art—and how the Process Development Center could continue to help the partnership grow.
Soon the Intermedia department was buzzing with talk of this new material. Around the same time, School of Forest Resources professor Aaron Weischitel introduced nanocellulose in a presentation he gave to a class in the program.
“I think what really drew us to it was the idea of Maine’s history and its connection to forestry,” says Susan Smith, director of Intermedia Programs at UMaine. “We still have this huge potential for a green economy for forest products. The idea of possibility really appealed to us, as did the fact that it was brand new material. Artists naturally want to play with materials and experiment.”
Smith formalized the partnership between the Intermedia Program and the Center for Process Development, which donated buckets of nanocellulose for the artists to use. Smith believes the Intermedia program is the perfect place for such experimentation, as its mission is to pursue “research-based art.”
“The focus was really on getting out of our silos and working together on campus,” Smith says. “Often the role of art is to visualize science, but this can be reciprocal. We can learn from each other. If we want to solve the problems, we will have to work together. It’s great that people are now open to these collaborations.”
Smith coordinated a tour of the Process Development Center for Intermedia students to learn more about nanocellulose from the scientists who study it, such as those UMaine researchers who are creating recyclable food containers from the material.
Artists were fascinated—and eager to get their hands on some nanocellulose for their own creative projects.
“It provides an opportunity for art that is sustainable but also local,” says Smith. “Our dependence on unsustainable processes needs to change, and with this research we are able to support the research of the Center for Process Development, but also think in terms of innovation with our own processes.”
The Process Development Center donated buckets of nanocellulose to the artists, who all had different ideas of what they would use it for. Smith says he uses it as a non-toxic natural pigment binder for his prints, which is preferable to those that are petroleum-based or made from acrylic polymers. Farnum experimented with cellulose fittings. Using tools from her art practice, she applies paints as well as silver, gold and aluminum leaf. Amplifying the material’s innate brightness, she adds seaweed by-product to the nanocellulose, which dries into ethereal shapes that catch the light just right when hung on the wall.
“If you look closely, nanocellulose looks like skin or bone,” Farnum enthuses. “We have this collaborative relationship. Sometimes it says, “Oh, you thought I was done drying? Well, I’m not, and now I’m going to do that. I’m still in the experimentation stage.
Alex Rose, another graduate student, is using nanocellulose as a coating for textiles and fibers. Dried nanocellulose gives recycled t-shirts a sense of gravity and makes naturally dyed materials appear hazy and turn them into a crispy wafer.
“It’s really interesting because it’s very mysterious what the final product will be,” says Rose. “There’s a sense of childlike surprise. It’s kind of stepping back through the whole process and seeing what the material says it wants to do. You feel like a discovery every time you try something new.”
Artists have been able to learn things about nanocellulose that they can also share with researchers. For example, although nanocellulose itself does not mold itself, if it is contaminated in any way, mold can develop. Farnum learned this firsthand when he experimented with the material in a barn at his house with a black mold infestation.
“An artist is an explorer with a different set of rules,” laughs Farnum.
The artists will display their work at PDC’s Cellulose Nanomaterials Forum from August 23 to 25. Walker sees this as a potential debut for using nanocellulose in art more broadly.
“We hope that one day soon, Maine will make this material available to artists around the world,” Walker says. “This collaboration is an excellent way to expand the research community working with this unique material.”
As for artists—whether sculpting, experimenting with dyes, or mixing media—their exploration of nanocellulose has just begun.
“I’m so into it,” Farnum says. “I’m excited to show the work at the end of the summer, but come on — I’ve got another five years to go! Work continues to change. Just last night I was researching new recipes and processes. Many of them fail and many of them show me something else. I have so many other directions I want to go with it. This is only the beginning.”
Contact: Sam Shipani, [email protected]