Published: 18-10-2016 16:10 | Updated: 19-10-2016 12:32

New research saves the environment when detecting cellulose

A team of Swedish researchers lead by Agneta Richter-Dahlfors at Karolinska Institutet has developed a cellulose detection system that is non-invasive and no-destructive.

Detection of cellulose is very important for recycling and developing clean, renewable energy however, until now it has been very difficult, requiring dangerous chemicals and specialized equipment.

Cellulose is a major component of all plant matter and is one of the most abundant and widely used molecules on the planet. It is a long, strong polymer that has a number of diverse uses in textiles and packaging. It can also be broken down into biogas, a process that could ultimately release society from a strong dependence on fossil fuels.

The problem with cellulose is that it is rarely found in a pure form and the quality can vary a lot. Not being able to accurately assess the quality and purity is making recycling and manufacturing processes more difficult and less efficient. This leads to unnecessary waste in recycling which is costly and damaging to the environment, it also means that it is difficult to monitor the quality of the breakdown of cellulose to biogas.

Non-toxic molecule can provide a simple readout of quality

The Swedish research team have synthesized a non-toxic molecule that can be easily applied to different forms of cellulose and provide a simple, optical readout of the quality. This could be used routinely and safely at any part of the cellulose-processing pipeline, giving multiple options for deployment and optimization.

Current methods of quantifying cellulose are technically very demanding and require harsh pre-treatments with strong and corrosive chemicals in order to degrade the polymers for analysis. The traditional methods also suffer from difficulties in the scale up process owing to the large quantities of dangerous chemicals required and the scarce access to complex analysis machinery.

"The next step for this technology is to make it available to the different industries that rely on cellulose as well as creating new, safe detection systems that reduce the reliance on dangerous chemicals and improve the quality efficiency of the recycling process", says Agneta Richter-Dahlfors.

This study was made possible by funding from Carl Bennet AB, the Erling-Persson Family Foundation and the European Research Council


“Nondestructive, real-time determination and visualization of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin by luminescent oligothiophenes

Ferdinand X. Choong, Marcus Bäck,Svava E. Steiner,Keira Melican, K. Peter R. Nilsson, Ulrica Edlund & Agneta Richter-Dahlfors

Scientific Reports, 19 october 2016. Doi:10.1038/srep35578