Editor’s Note: Intermedia students’ nanocellulose art will be on public display August 24 at the Wells Conference Center from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

Nanocellulose is a biodegradable material. In a mixture containing 97% water, nanocellulose looks like a curd or paste. When freeze-dried, it has the consistency of Styrofoam. When completely dry, it is like a plastic tile.

The University of Maine Process Development Center is at the cutting edge of developing and using nanocellulose for scientific applications. Now, thanks to a partnership with Intermedia Programs, UMaine is pushing new frontiers in using nanocellulose in the arts.

Graduate students in intermedia programs have partnered with the Process Development Center to use nanocellulose as a material for art and creative projects. The collaboration not only gives artists a non-toxic and innovative material to use – which can be used by even more artists in the future – but can also help scientists learn more about this cutting-edge material.

Colleen Walker, director of the Process Development Center, says it all started when artists started asking her lab if they could buy nanocellulose. It was not an extraordinary question; The Center regularly distributes such samples for research purposes. Walker says that because of its production capabilities, the facility is the only one in the world that delivers nanocellulose by the pound (typically at a rate of $75 per pound in 5-gallon buckets).

“There are companies on the commercial side that sell technology so that organizations can produce their own content. However, it’s a multi-million dollar investment,” Walker says. “We bridge that gap. We normally make 300 pounds of dry material in a batch, but with our new system we will be able to produce two to four tons a day.”

Still, Walker began to see a pattern of artists asking for nanocellulose. Donna Johnson, research manager at the Center for Process Development, has also experimented with the material in her own artistic works in jewelry, textile art and paint.

Then, one fateful day, Augusta Sparks Farnum, a graduate student in Intermedia Studies, walks by looking for nanocellulose to use in her assignment.

Farnum had been creating art for decades before joining the Intermedia Studies program, but she recently felt tired of the art world, particularly the lack of sustainability of art materials and practices. When she learned about nanocellulose in all its biodegradable, non-toxic glory, she was overcome with emotion.

“I can make something and if it doesn’t work and instead of walking around with it for the rest of my life I can put it back in the woods and it will rot,” Farnum says. “Coming from the art world, that’s not true of many things. You’re dealing with plastics and chemicals. Nanocellulose is a wonderful gift.

Instead of sending Farnum on his way with a bucket of nanocellulose, Walker began asking questions about using nanocellulose in art—and how the Process Development Center could continue to help the partnership grow.

Soon, the intermedia department was buzzing with talk of this new material. At the same time, School of Forest Resources Professor Aaron Weschitel introduced nanocellulose in a class presentation at the event.

“I think what really drew us to it was the idea of ​​Maine’s history and its relationship with its forests,” says Susan Smith, director of intermedia programs at UMaine. “We still have huge green economy potential for forest products. The idea of ​​possibility really attracted us, plus it was brand new material. Artists naturally want to play with materials and experiments. “

Smith formalized a partnership between the Intermedia Program and the Center for Process Development, which donated buckets of nanocellulose for artists to use. Smith thinks the Intermedia program is the perfect place for such an experiment, as its aim is to pursue “research-based art.”

“The focus is really on moving out of our silos and working collaboratively across campus,” says Smith. “Often the role of art is to visualize science, but that can be reciprocal. We can learn from each other. If we’re going to solve problems, we have to work together. It’s great that people are now open to those collaborations.”

Smith coordinated a tour of the Process Development Center for Intermedia students to learn more about nanocellulose from the scientists studying it, like those UMaine researchers. Creating reusable food containers from materials.

Artists were fascinated—and couldn’t wait to get their hands on some nanocellulose for their own creative projects.

“It offers the potential for sustainable art, but also local,” says Smith. “Our reliance on unsustainable processes must change, and with this research, we are able to support process development center research, but also think in terms of innovation with our own processes.”

The Process Development Center donated buckets of nanocellulose to the artists, who had different ideas about what they would use. Smith says she uses it as a non-toxic binder for natural pigments in her printmaking, which is better than petroleum-based or made from acrylic polymers. Farnum Experiments with Cellulose Armatures. Using the tools of his art practice, he applied paint, as well as silver, gold and aluminum leaf. Furthering the material’s innate luminosity, she adds a by-product of seaweed to nanocellulose that dries into ethereal shapes that catch light when hung on the wall.

“If you look at it closely, nanocellulose looks like skin or bone,” marvels Farnum. “We have this collaborative relationship. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, you thought I was dry? Well, I’m not, and now I’m going to do it.’ I’m still in the experimentation phase.”

Another Intermedia graduate student, Alex Rose, has been using nanocellulose as a coating for textiles and fibers. The dried nanocellulose gives the recycled T-shirt strips a sense of gravity, and the naturally dyed material looks foggy and turns it into a crispy wafer.

“It’s really interesting because it’s so mysterious in how the final product will turn out,” Rose says. “A child has a sense of wonder. This whole process is about stepping back and seeing what the material wants to do. It feels like a discovery every time you try something new.

Artists have been able to learn things about nanocellulose that they can share with researchers. For example, although nanocellulose itself does not mold, if it is contaminated in any way, mold can grow. Farnum learned this firsthand when he used materials in his home barn that were infested with black mold.

“An artist is a researcher with a different set of rules,” laughs Farnum.

The artists will exhibit their works at the PDC Cellulose Nanomaterials Forum August 23-25. Walker sees this as the potential debut of using nanocellulose in art.

“We hope that one day soon Maine will provide this material to artists around the world,” says Walker. “This collaboration is an excellent way to broaden the research community working with this unique material.”

For artists – whether they’re sculpting, using paints or mixing media – their explorations with nanocellulose are just beginning.

“I’m so into it,” Farnum says. “I’m excited about the opportunity to show the work at the end of the summer, but come on – I need five more years! The work keeps changing. Just last night I was researching new recipes and processes. Many of them fail and they show me something else. I have many directions. I want to go with it. This is just the beginning.”

Contact: Sam Shipani, [email protected]