Coming soon: helmets made from carrots
Coming soon: helmets made from carrots (EMPA/Thinkstock)
Coming soon: helmets made from carrots
Lexile: 1260L

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David Hepworth and Eric Whale, two Scottish material scientists, were looking for smart ways to reuse food waste when they figured out how to make nanofibers out of carrot pulp, the leftovers from carrot juice. The cellulose in carrots and other root vegetables, unlike other fibrous materials like wood or cotton, is easy to separate out from the rest of the biowaste - they extract it from the pulp.
The scientists call the material Curran, after the Gaelic word for carrot, and set out to show that it could be used as an alternative to glass or carbon fibers. They say it's nearly twice as strong and slightly lighter than carbon. In 2007, Hepworth and Whale founded CelluComp, a company to develop Curran and other plant-based materials.
Christian Kemp-Griffin, the CEO of CelluComp, says they started with carrots because they were cheap and easy to get - they would just 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, flexible and strong, characteristics that Curran could best bring. Called the E21 Carrot Stix, it won some awards and sold well.
Then, with grant money from the European Union to test the material, CelluComp hired researchers at EMPA, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, to identify the best ways to put nanofibers sourced from plants - they're looking at sugar beets next - to work. They found that the smartest, most ecologically responsible use for the nanofibers, including Curran, was for protective sporting goods, in particular motorcycle helmets, which have to be both strong and light.
That's right: Motorcycle helmets of the future might be made from carrots, not carbon.
"Nanocellulose has material properties that would allow it to replace either glass or carbon in today's plastic fiber," says Roland Hischier, a researcher at EMPA who specializes in analyzing the life cycle of products. "Carbon fiber is a non-renewable resource. We have, sooner or later, to see how we get these materials."
The most interesting thing about Curran, Hischier says, is how it uses food waste, which is becoming a bigger problem in Europe, as commuting and fast food are more prominent. He and the rest of the team at EMPA assessed the environmental footprint and commercial viability of Curran. The study was part of an FP7 program, which 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 developed 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's where the helmet comes in. In their analysis, 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 and 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 doesn't make sense to develop a material from biowaste if there's no use for it, or if turning it into a useable product takes more energy than the non-renewable alternative.

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Assigned 99 times
What advantage does the cellulose in root vegetables have over wood or cotton? Why is the cellulose in root vegetables a better choice than carbon fiber for making protective clothing?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • blakem-
    9/30/2015 - 10:41 a.m.

    1.What surprised me was how root vegetables are more flexible than wood or cotton.
    2.What the author thought I already knew was how cellulose is in all root vegetables.
    3.What I thought I knew was that wood was stronger than any root vegetable.

  • tylerp-
    9/30/2015 - 10:41 a.m.

    I found it surprising that you can even make a helmet out of carrots and that the helmet would be lighter than Carbon fiber.
    The author thinks i already know what a helmet and carrots are.
    what changed about what i thought i knew was that the carrot helmet is lighter than a regular helmet and safer.

  • hoad-
    9/30/2015 - 10:43 a.m.

    it's surprise me is i don't think that carrot can make in to a helmets i think that carrot can only use for chicken soup and food

    i know what a carrot is and you can make food out of it

    i don't know that carrot can be use for helmets because carrot can break very easy and after a long time it will get bad and smelly.

  • jacobp-
    9/30/2015 - 10:45 a.m.

    I did not know you could make helmets out of carrots. I thought carrots are used to be eaten not as a helmet.That carrots can be used as as a helmet not only food.

  • anniez-
    9/30/2015 - 10:46 a.m.

    What surprise me about the article was that how they made a helmets out of carrots. The author thinks that i already probably knew that the in the future there was going be other helmets not that carrots.What changed, Challenged and confirmed what i thought i knew was that why did they pick carrots? There are hundreds of other fruits?! Was that is easier to separate out from the rest of the biowaste.

  • alexanderc-
    9/30/2015 - 10:48 a.m.

    The advantage is that the helmets would be stronger and it would be cheap to make. The thing that surprised me the most was that carrot pulp is as strong as carbon.

  • nicoleb-
    9/30/2015 - 10:48 a.m.

    Something that surprised me was that helmets could be made out of carrot instead of carbon.I think that the author already knew that children would know what helmet and carrots are.What challenged what i knew was that I did thing carrots would not be strong to become a helmet.

  • benjaminp-
    9/30/2015 - 12:03 p.m.

    Something that Surprised me is that they can actually extract cellulose from vegetables and use it in different types of objects such as helmets and fishing rods. The author thought i already knew that vegetables had cellulose in it. What challenged what i thought was that the cellulose was strong and light.

  • nicholast-
    9/30/2015 - 12:03 p.m.

    i like but at the same time i dont im suprised that there making carrot helmets carrots could be soft why would the be helmets i dont understand why there doing this i did not know that this was a thing like if you fall of a bike with a carrot helmet on it would just braek.

  • gages-
    9/30/2015 - 12:05 p.m.

    the part of this article that surpised me the most was that something from a vegitable could be strong enough to make a helmet!the author thought i already knew that cotton was found in a carrot.but my knowlege about carrots changed during the article in many places for example when the article said that carrots are about 2 times stronger than carbon.

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