Elijah Begin is a rising senior at Ouachita Baptist University, majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Elijah is working in Dr. Marcus Foston’s lab, studying the efficient use of cellulose in biofuels, particularly the stress/strain properties of cellulose-based hydrogels.
Cellulose is the primary component of the plant cell wall that is composed of repeating glucose subunits with hydroxyl surface groups that can be functionalized. Cellulose can be extracted by acid hydrolysis as long nanocrystals, which have a high elastic modulus. Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) have been used as a nano composite for the biodegradable plastic poly-lactic acid (PLA) and have been shown to increase the mechanical properties of the material they are blended with while keeping the sustainability of the material. Spider silk fiber can be used as a material with tensile strength proportional to the subunit molecular weight. High molecular weight silk protein has a low yield when created by microbes, so this project focuses on how to increase the tensile strength of high yield, low molecular weight silk fibers. Here we show that cellulose nanocrystals can be used as a reinforcing agent in a spider silk protein matrix to increase its mechanical properties without affecting its sustainability. (Still waiting on results here, should have data soon )This composite could be used as an alternative to the high molecular weight form of spider silk that is much less cost effective to produce industrially. The composite can be used in materials that call for high tensile strength fibers and will progress the material industry toward a more sustainable future.