Coming soon: helmets made from carrots
David Hepworth and Eric Whale are two Scottish material scientists. They were looking for smart ways to reuse food waste. Then they figured out how to make nanofibers out of carrot pulp. It is the leftovers from carrot juice. The cellulose in carrots and other root vegetables is unlike other fibrous materials like wood or cotton. It is easy to separate out from the rest of the biowaste. They remove it from the pulp.
The scientists call the material Curran. The name comes from the Gaelic word for carrot. And they set out to show that it could be used as an option other than glass or carbon fibers.
They say it is nearly twice as strong and slightly lighter than carbon. In 2007, Hepworth and Whale founded CelluComp. The company plans to develop Curran and other plant-based materials.
Christian Kemp-Griffin is the CEO of CelluComp. He says they started with carrots because they were cheap and easy to get. They would go buy out their local grocery store. But they soon realized that the carrot pulp actually worked well. And, that they could tap into agricultural waste to source their material.
First, the scientists made a fishing rod out of Curran. They figured a rod had to be light. It also had to be flexible and strong. Those are characteristics that Curran could best bring. The fishing rod was called the E21 Carrot Stix. It won some awards and sold well.
Then they got grant money. It was from the European Union. To test the material, CelluComp hired researchers at EMPA. That is the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.
It was asked to identify the best ways to put nanofibers taken from plants to work. They are looking at sugar beets next. They found that the smartest, most ecologically responsible use for the nanofibers. That included Curran. The found that the smartest use was for protective sporting goods. In particular, motorcycle helmets. Those have to be both strong and light.
That is right. Motorcycle helmets of the future might be made from carrots and not carbon.
"Nanocellulose has material properties that would allow it to replace either glass or carbon in today's plastic fiber," says Roland Hischier. He is a researcher at EMPA. He specializes in questioning the life cycle of products. "Carbon fiber is a non-renewable resource. We have, sooner or later, to see how we get these materials."
Hischier says that the most interesting thing about Curran is how it uses food waste. The waste is becoming a bigger problem in Europe. That is because commuting and fast food are more common. He and the rest of the team at EMPA judged the environmental footprint and commercial viability of Curran. The study was part of an FP7 program. It funds sustainability-related projects across the EU.
"The European community, in the last 5 to 6 years, has started to put some accent on the issues of sustainability," Hischier says.
To test whether something like Curran is actually viable, EMPA created a three-step process. First, is there actually a need for this material? Will it be replicable and consistent outside of the lab? And, lastly, is it actually an improvement, environmentally speaking, from current materials? This is a baseline. And EMPA is working to come up with a framework for how any new renewable material will be assessed.
"The question here, first of all, was to see what could be a potential market for such a new fiber, from an ecological point but also from the economic and technical angles too," Hischier says.
That is where the helmet comes in. In their study, EMPA found that protective sporting goods, which need stiff, strong, light fibers and low economic overhead, were some of the best use cases for Curran. Hischier and his team are also looking at the viability of using it in surfboards. Or even as insulation for mobile homes.
The challenge now is taking the material from the lab to production. And, making sure that it's still ecologically smart on a grander scale.
It does not make sense to develop a material from biowaste if there is no use for it. Or if turning it into a useable product takes more energy than the non-renewable alternative.