Editor’s Note: Intermedia students’ nanocellulose art will be on public display August 24 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Wells Conference Center.
Nanocellulose is a malleable material. In a 97% water mixture, nanocellulose looks like yoghurt or dough. When freeze-dried, it has the consistency of polystyrene. Fully dried, it’s like a plastic tile.
The University of Maine is leading the development and use of nanocellulose for scientific applications at the Process Development Center. Today, thanks to a partnership with Intermedia Programs, UMaine opens a new frontier in the use of nanocellulose in art.
Graduate students from Intermedia programs have partnered with the Process Development Center to use nanocellulose as a material for artistic and creative projects. The collaboration not only gives artists a non-toxic, innovative material to experiment with – material that could be used by even more artists in the future – but can also help scientists learn more about this cutting-edge material.
Colleen Walker, director of the Process Development Center, says it all started when artists started calling her lab asking if they could purchase nanocellulose. It was not an extraordinary request; the center regularly distributes samples like this for research purposes. Walker says that due to its production capabilities, the facility is one of the only in the world to distribute nanocellulose by the pound (usually at a rate of $75 for the value of a pound in a bucket of 5 gallon).
“There are companies on the commercial side that sell technology so that organizations can produce their own hardware. However, it is a multi-million dollar investment,” says Walker. “We are closing that gap. We typically 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 asking for nanocellulose. Even the head of research at the Process Development Center, Donna Johnson, had experimented with the material in her own artistic pursuits in jewelry, textile art, and dyes.
Then, one fateful day, Augusta Sparks Farnum, a graduate student in Intermedia Studies, walked in looking for nanocellulose to use in her homework.
Farnum had been making art for decades before joining the Intermedia Studies program, but said she had recently felt jaded by the art world, particularly the lack of durability of materials and materials. artistic practices. When she heard about nanocellulose in all its biodegradable, non-toxic glory, she shook off that feeling.
“I could craft something and if it didn’t work and instead of dragging it around for the rest of my life, I could put it back in the forest and it would decompose,” Farnum 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 just sending Farnum on his way with his 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 discussions about this new material. Around the same time, Aaron Weiskittel, a professor at the School of Forest Resources, introduced nanocellulose in a presentation he made for the program class.
“I think what really appealed to us 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 green economy potential for forest products. The idea of possibility was really what appealed to us, as well as the fact that it was a whole new material. Artists naturally want to play with materials and experiment.
Smith formalized the partnership between the Intermedia program and the Process Development Center, which donated buckets of nanocellulose for artists to use. Smith thinks the Intermedia program is the perfect place for such experimentation, as its mission is to pursue “research-based art.”
“The focus has really been on breaking out of our silos and working collaboratively on campus,” Smith says. “Often the role of art is to visualize science, but it can be reciprocal. We can learn from each other. If we want to solve 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 about nanocellulose from the scientists who study it, like these UMaine researchers who are create recyclable food containers from the material.
Artists were captivated and eager to get their hands on nanocellulose for their own creative projects.
“It provides an opportunity for art that is sustainable, but also local,” Smith says. “Our reliance on unsustainable processes must change, and with this research we are able to support the Process Development Center’s research, but also think in terms of innovations 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 them for. Smith says she uses it as a non-toxic binder for natural pigments for her etching, which is preferable to petroleum-based or acrylic polymer-based ones. Farnum is experimenting with cellulose reinforcements. Using tools from her art practice, she applied paint, as well as silver, gold and aluminum leaf. To enhance the material’s innate luminosity, she added an algae byproduct to the nanocellulose that dries into ethereal shapes that catch the light when hung on the wall.
“If you look closely, nanocellulose looks like skin or bone,” Farnum marvels. “We have this collaborative relationship. Sometimes he says, ‘Oh, you thought I was done drying? Well, I’m not, and now I will. I’m still in the experimentation stage.
Alex Rose, another intermediate graduate student, uses nanocellulose as a coating for textiles and fibers. Dried nanocellulose gives recycled t-shirt strips a gravity feel and gives the naturally dyed material a hazy look and twists it into a crisp wafer.
“It’s really interesting because it’s very mysterious in how the final product will be,” Rose says. “There is a feeling of childish surprise. It’s kind of taking a step back throughout the process and seeing what the material says it wants to do. It’s like a discovery every time you try something new.
The artists were able to learn things about nanocellulose that they can also share with researchers. For example, although nanocellulose itself does not mold on its own, if it is contaminated in any way, mold can grow. Farnum learned this firsthand while experimenting with the material in a barn in his home with a black mold infestation.
“An artist is a researcher with a different set of rules,” laughs Farnum.
The artists will exhibit their works at the PDC Cellulose Nanomaterials Forum from August 23-25. Walker sees this as a potential beginning for the wider use of nanocellulose in art.
“We hope that one day soon, Maine will provide this material to artists around the world,” Walker said. “This collaboration is a great way to expand the research community working with this unique material.”
As for artists, whether they’re sculpting, experimenting with dyes, or mixing materials, their exploration of nanocellulose has only just begun.
“I’m so into it,” Farnum says. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to show the work at the end of the summer, but come on, I need five more years!” The job keeps changing. 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 follow. This is just the beginning.”
Contact: Sam Schipani, [email protected]