Coming soon: helmets made from carrots (EMPA/Thinkstock)
Coming soon: helmets made from carrots
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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 they 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 is the CEO of CelluComp. He 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. That is the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. It was asked 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. And 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. He is 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. The waste 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. 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 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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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
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


COMMENTS (46)
  • camdenc-ver
    9/25/2015 - 02:28 p.m.

    It sounds like a funny novel, having carrot helmets, but if it really is stronger than carbon, I am excited for this new protective material.

  • Eugene0808-YYCA
    9/28/2015 - 09:51 p.m.

    I think this is cool because this is reducing and reusing food waste and it reduces the uses of non-renewable resources like carbon. Products that require carbon fiber and plastic fiber can be replaced by Curran. It would be cool to see. This would be revolutionary.
    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?
    Answer: Cellulose in root vegetables have advantages by being lighter and stronger. It makes a better choice for making protective clothing because it is stronger.

  • laneys-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 09:22 a.m.

    The advantage of cellulose in root veggies is better than wood and cotton because it is easy to separate. It is a better choice because it is hard and not really breakable.

  • briannar-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 09:24 a.m.

    I think that it is good that people are finding new ways to reuse food waste. They are using carrot pulp to make nanofibers to make useful items. Scientist are using Curran as alternates for glass and carbon fibers.

  • amelianaa-ols
    9/30/2015 - 09:26 a.m.

    Using cellulose is better because it can be made into flexible material when it's needed, but it can also be stiff. The material is also twines as strong and lighter than the carbon fiber.

  • tycenb-ols
    9/30/2015 - 09:48 a.m.

    I think that it was a great idea to produce things made from vegetables. If we are able to expand our knowledge in this technology we can advance in many things.

  • jasminpd-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 12:55 p.m.

    The cellulose in root vegetables is easy to separate from the rest of the bio waste. The bend easily and are better for the weather.

  • mckaylas-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 12:57 p.m.

    The advantage that the cellulose in a root vegetable over wood or cotton is that it is easily separated from the waste. It has stiff strong like fibers that help protect. This would make it a better voice for making protective clothing.

  • keatonm-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 12:57 p.m.

    I think that carrots should not be helmets because carrots are not strong. They are for eating or growing, not for protecting your head from high speed motorcycle accidents.

  • karlees-1-ols
    9/30/2015 - 12:58 p.m.

    It has some advantages, but the big one is that it is stronger and potentially better for the environment. The cellulose in root vegetables is a better choice because it helps reduce the amount of waste going into the environment.

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