NEWARK, De. - A team of researchers at the University of Delaware has made sticky tape out of wood.
Like many other recently-engineered supermaterials, the main component is lignin - a natural and renewable substance found in trees that make them stronger.
"One of the thoughts that we have always had is: Can we take lignin and make useful products, and in this case, useful polymers out of it?" said Thomas H. Epps, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UD, and the corresponding author of the new paper. In particular, Epps suspected that lignin could be used to make adhesives with similar strength, toughness, and scratch resistance to the petroleum-based versions.
Epps and his team were right. With the help of a commercially available catalyst, the team developed a mild, low-temperature process that breaks the lignin into molecular fragments. Once broken, it was converted to synthesize new materials, like sustainable tape. Upon testing, the team found that their newly created tape performed similarly to Scotch Magic Tape.
The research team utilized lignin sourced from poplar wood, but they plan to explore the potential of other woods and other plants with high lignin content.
"Let's say we change to a birch tree, oak tree or pine tree, can we make these same designer materials, but with slightly different properties?" said Epps. "Perhaps the materials could be reverse engineered to have varying levels of stickiness, yielding products from duct tape to electrical tape to painter's tape to bandages to sticky notes and more."
"If I need something that is a little bit tacky, I might use a slightly different tree for that," said Epps. "If I want something that is less tacky and leaves less residue, I might use a different tree. There is a lot of opportunity to use biodiversity to finetune the end product."
The applications of processed lignin can also be expanded to rubber bands, o-rings, gaskets, and seals, or car tires. The collaborative work has been published in the ACS Central Science.
Wood-based materials and super materials seem to be a growing trend. One involves the marine tunicate, an exotic sea invertebrate often used in Asian cuisine, which has been combined with wood pulp to form a new composite material that's flexible, sustainable, non-toxic, and UV light-reflective. The material could be used in construction, food packaging, biomedical devices, cars, trucks, and boats, say researchers.
Another, from University of Maryland scientists, is ten times stronger than regular wood and has an equal strength of steel, but is six times lighter. And yet another, from Swedish inventors, is reportedly stronger than spider silk.

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