Questions for ‘Engineers borrow a tree’s cellulose to toughen new materials’  

a photo of a sporty looking car parked on a brick driveway with a brick wall behind it

This car was made from trees! But it’s not out of their wood. Scientists took only the toughest, strongest part of wood — its nanocrystals of cellulose — and added them to other materials. Experts are hoping that this secret ingredient could allow us to use far less plastic.

Courtesy of Ministry of the Environment Government, Japan

To accompany Engineers borrow a tree’s cellulose to toughen new materials


Before Reading:

  1. Set a timer for 1 minute, and before the time runs out, list as many crunchy foods as you can. Now circle all the foods on that list that are plant-based. Did you list more plant-based or animal-based foods? 
  2. Do a quick internet search for illustrations of a “typical plant cell.” Examine the component of plant cells called the “cell wall.” Where can you find a plant cell’s cell wall? What does the cell wall do for the plant cell? What molecule is the cell wall primarily made from? 

During Reading:

  1. In engineering lingo, what’s the difference between an object being tough vs. strong? Provide one example of a “tough” object. Provide one example of a “strong” object.
  2. What’s the source of the main ingredient in Abhinav Rao’s new material?
  3. How many units of that ingredient would you need to stack to match the width of a human hair? 
  4. Rao and his team developed a “new gel.” What problem was this gel trying to solve regarding the nano-size “toothpicks?” 
  5. What did Rao and his team do to make their gel-based “tooth-shaped object” as tough as bone? 
  6. From what two ingredients is the new gel composed?
  7. Rao says that strength and toughness (or durability) are important properties for materials. But what third property does Rao say we should also consider? 

After Reading:

  1. “What would you build with an all-natural, nano-sized toothpick?” Emily Cranston asks. Answer her question! First make a list of the important properties of this material. Then think of an item, or even just a material, that could be improved using this technology. Imagine you are an inventor. What’s an example of a company to whom you could suggest this idea? Be specific. Identify one way that this technology might offer an improvement of some kind.
  2. According to this study, from where are the nano-toothpicks derived? What could you use if you wanted to produce lots of these? Think of waste products. Might some waste products contain this material? In small groups, discuss different places you might look to find waste materials that might yield more of the new nano-toothpicks.