What do lithium batteries, kidney dialysis machines, and natural gas have in common? And what do they have to do with wood? The answer is that they all involve the use of "cellulose nanocrystals," a topic that is currently being investigated by John Simonsen, professor of Wood Science and Engineering in the College of Forestry.
Although Simonsen is a chemist, "wood has been in my family for generations," he says. "My grandfather owned a sawmill, and so did his father. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until I found a career that also dealt in wood products." The family later was involved with the manufacture and distribution of wood treatment chemicals.
During his undergraduate study at the University of Missouri, Simonsen majored in chemistry, graduating with a B.S. in 1969 and then attending graduate school at the University of Colorado to receive his PhD in physical chemistry in 1975. "While I was in school, my research had nothing to do with wood, and the subject of my PhD thesis was magnetosedimentation, which is about as far from it as you can get."
After working for several years in his family’s business, Simonsen came to the College of Forestry in 1990. Since then, much of his research has focused on composites. "Of the many materials derived from the forest, the one which possesses perhaps the highest strength and stiffness is the cellulose crystal," explains Simonsen, "In studying this type of crystal, which is derived from wood pulp, we are finding that it has the potential to be used in myriad applications, so right now, we’re trying to find out what exactly it could be used for."
One project exploring this application for cellulose crystal technology involves developing a membrane, in conjunction with the Chemical Engineering Department at OSU, as part of an effort to improve the technology behind kidney dialysis. "Currently, the membranes that are used are not optimized for microchannel devices. The people developing these devices needed something stiffer than the current membrane, and so I suggested researching the effect of adding cellulose nanocrystals to the existing polymer. We discovered that, in adding 2% cellulose nanocrystals, we could increase the stiffness of the existing polymer up to three times. Consequently, we’ve been pursuing the next steps on that."
While this research is very promising, Simonsen admits that there still much to do. "So far we’re still at the very beginning of the research, and nothing has gone commercial, or will for a while," he says. "We’re happy to say that our initial results have been encouraging."
While all of his present research is ongoing, he hopes to eventually expand his work into other medical fields in the future, including a new project that may combine DNA and cellulose in order to replace lost bone. Says Simonsen, "We just started a collaboration with Cornell and OHSU, and the hope is that this technology will eventually be used in biomedical implants."
What Simonsen enjoys most about his position at OSU is the research environment. "I’m pretty normal, as professors go. I like having the academic freedom to pursue research that I’d like to pursue. I enjoy watching the students develop. I always really liked school," he says. "It took me 5 years to get my undergraduate degree and another 5 to get my graduate degree. Basically, I really never left college, and I’m still here because I like the environment here."
Another aspect of his work that Simonsen finds exciting is the fact that the field is rapidly expanding. In the past 20 years or so, the area of wood science and of most natural materials has developed into biomaterials science, he explains. Wood and other natural materials are now being approached from a materials science standpoint in the same way that metals and polymers have been for years. "This requires an expansion in research areas and in perspective," Simonsen says. "It requires thinking out of the box, because really, we’re not just trying to make 2 by 4s anymore. We want to do things a whole new way."
Bio of John Simonsen written by Bryan Bernart, Editorial Assistant, Forestry Communications Group, College of Forestry