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)
  • daizypd-ols
    9/30/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    That is so cool how you can make things out of food waste, it saves land fills from becoming bigger and it's a good way to recycle.

  • jacksonh-ols
    9/30/2015 - 01:05 p.m.

    The advantage is that it is easier to separate from the bio waste. It is also up to two times as strong as carbon. It is also lighter than carbon, making it more efficient.

  • genevieveb-6-bar
    10/02/2015 - 12:26 a.m.

    Cellulose in root vegetables can easily be removed from the biowaste. In the first paragraph, the author states,"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" (paragraph 1). Since there is pulp within carrots, the cellulose can easily be removed, whereas it is more difficult to remove the fibers from wood or cotton, because they are more solid materials.
    The cellulose in root vegetables is a better choice than carbon fiber for sports gear because carrot cellulose is a natural resource, whereas carbon is a fossil fuel. Early in the article, Roland Hischier says,"'Carbon fiber is a non-renewable resource'"(paragraph 7). Since carbon is non-renewable, the Earth and its people will eventually run out of the fibers, whereas humans will always be able to grow carrots, with proper materials. By reducing carbon use in sports wear, we can save the carbon for better use. Carrot cellulose is a better option because it is renewable, whereas carbon fibers are not.

    I was intrigued by this article because it interests me that scientists can formulate and construct a motorcycle helmet out of carrot pulp.

  • reidi-4-bar
    10/06/2015 - 08:29 p.m.

    David Hepworth and Eric whale found out how to make nanofibers out of carrots pulp. They thought that they would be able to us this in helmets, surfboards, and insulation in mobile homes. I think it would be very cool to be able to use recycled carrots and maybe other foods to be making things that we use daily

  • ethanl-was
    10/08/2015 - 12:35 p.m.

    The advantage cellulose has over wood and other materials is, cellulose easily separates form the bio waste. The reason cellulose can be used for protective clothing is that carbon fiber is a non-renewable resource but cellulose is. That is why cellulose has the advantage

  • madisonh1-how
    10/09/2015 - 02:30 p.m.

    That is so cool and funny to have a carrot helmet, I think it is a good idea because if it is stronger then carbon dioxide the they should make it like that. That's hat i think

  • audreyv-4-bar
    10/09/2015 - 08:08 p.m.

    The cellulose in root vegetables is easier to remove from biowaste than wood or cotton. The cellulose is a better choice than carbon, because it's lighter and is stronger. Not only that, but it's a new way to use something that we normally throw out. "'Carbon fiber is a non-renewable resource. We have, sooner or later, to see how we get these materials'"

    I found this article very interesting, because it talks about a crazy situation that we may have to face later. At first, the idea of having carrots as our helmets sounded crazy, but after reading this article, I thought that it made sense to use as a material for sporting goods.

  • elizabetht-fel
    10/14/2015 - 02:17 p.m.

    The advantage that cellulose in root vegetables contain over wood or cotton is that it is easy to separate out of biowaste. The advantage that the cellulose in root vegetables has over carbon is that it is slightly lighter and nearly twice as strong.

  • coled-fel
    10/14/2015 - 02:17 p.m.

    CTQ: The advantage it has is that The cellulose in root vegetables is twice as strong and is lighter than carbon or wood and cotton.

  • ethanw-fel
    10/14/2015 - 02:18 p.m.

    Its a better choice because They say it's nearly twice as strong and slightly lighter than carbon.And because they were cheap and easy to get.

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