Tu receives grant from USDA-NIFA to to develop smart materials from renewable biomass



Maobing Tu, associate professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore the use of nanocrystalline cellulose from forest biomass to create piezoelectric materials. The project, titled “Nanocrystalline Cellulose Based Piezoelectric Materials For Energy Sustainability,” is expected to provide a new class of piezoelectric materials, which are critical to high tech devices. Tu is collaborating with Zhongyang Cheng, a professor in the Materials Engineering program, on the project.   


Piezoelectric materials generate electric current when mechanically stressed, and widely used in sensors, actuators, and transducers.  According to Tu, who recently received a CAREER grant from the NSF for his work with bioenergy, they are also crucial for the development of green energy. The materials currently used are either lead-based ceramics, which pose environmental concerns, or polymers. Tu says that nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), processed through hydrolysis from woody biomass, has the potential to be modified into a new category of piezoelectric materials.


The project uses the NCCs to develop two types of piezoelectric materials: NCC-based composites, and NCC nano-brushes, in which NCCs will be assembled in a brush-like array configuration. The composites will be mainly used in the development of sensors, actuators, and transducers, while the NCC nano-brushes are intended for the development of energy harvest devices.


“It is our vision that agriculture and forestry are not only sources for food and fiber, but also sources for engineering materials,” said Tu. “This project has the potential to revive forest industry by transforming a significant portion of the pulp and paper industry to the development of engineering materials and add high value to forest biomass.”


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