Editor’s Note: Intermedia students’ nanocellulose art will be on public display on August 24th from 4:30–6:30 pm in the Wells Conference Center.

Nanocellulose is a malleable material. In a mixture that is 97% water, nanocellulose looks like yogurt or paste. When freeze-dried, it has the consistency of Styrofoam. Fully dried, it is like a plastic sheet.

The University of Maine is at the forefront of developing and using nanocellulose for scientific applications in the Process Development Center. Now, thanks to a partnership with Intermedia Programs, UMaine is creating a new frontier in the use of nanocellulose in art.

Graduate students in the Intermedia Programs have collaborated with the Process Development Center to use nanocellulose as a material for artistic and creative projects. The collaboration not only gives artists a non-toxic and innovative material to experiment with—one that can be used by more artists in the future—but it could 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 calling her lab asking 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 manufacturing capabilities, the facility is one of the only ones in the world that dispenses nanocellulose by the pound (typically at a rate of $75 a pound in a 5-gallon bucket).

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

However, Walker began to notice a pattern of artists seeking out nanocellulose. Even Process Development Center research manager Donna Johnson had experimented with the material in her artistic pursuits in jewelry, fabric art and color.

Then, one fateful day, it came to Augusta Sparks Farnum, a graduate student in Media Studies, looking for nanocellulose to use in her assignments.

Farnum had been making art for decades before joining the Intermedia Studies program, but said she had recently felt bored with the art world, particularly the lack of permanence of art materials and practices. When she learned about nanocellulose in all its biodegradable, non-toxic glory, she was blown away by that feeling.

“I could make something and if it didn’t work and instead of carrying it around for the rest of my life, I could put it back in the woods and it would decompose,” Farnum says. “Coming from the art world, that’s not true of most things. You are dealing with plastics and chemicals. Nanocellulose is a wonderful gift.”

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

Soon, the Intermedia department will be buzzing with talk of this new material. Around the same time, School of Forest Resources professor Aaron Weiskittel introduced nanocellulose in a presentation he gave to a class in the program.

“I think what really attracted us was the idea of ​​Maine history and its connection to forestry,” says Susan Smith, director of Intermedia Programs at UMaine. “We still have this huge potential for a green economy for forest products. The idea of ​​possibility was really what attracted us, as well as the fact that it was a brand new material. Artists naturally want to play with materials and experiment.”

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

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

Smith coordinated a tour of the Process Development Center for Intermedia students to learn more about nanocellulose from the scientists who are studying it, such as UMaine researchers who are creating recyclable food containers from the material.

The artists were fascinated—and eager to get some nanocellulose for their creative projects.

“This provides an opportunity for art that is sustainable but also local,” says Smith. “Our dependence on unstable processes needs to change, and with this research, we are able to support the research of the Process Development Center, but also think about innovations with our own processes.

The Process Development Center donated buckets of nanocellulose to the artists, who all had different ideas of what they would use it for. Smith says she uses it as a non-toxic binder for natural pigment for her printmaking, which is preferred over those that are petroleum-based or made from acrylic polymers. Farnum experiments with cellulose armor. Using tools from her art practice, she applied paint as well as silver, gold and aluminum foil. To add to the material’s innate luster, she has added a seaweed bi-product to nanocellulose, which dries into ethereal forms that catch light when hung on the wall.

“If you look closely, nanocellulose looks like skin or bone,” marvels Farnum. “We have this cooperative relationship. Sometimes he says, ‘Oh, you thought I was done drying? Well, I’m not, and now I’m going to do that.’ I’m still in the experimentation phase.”

Alex Rose, another media graduate student, has used nanocellulose as a coating for textiles and fibers. Dried nanocellulose gives recycled t-shirt strips a sense of gravity and makes the naturally dyed material look hazy and turns it into a crunchy wafer.

“It’s really interesting because it’s very mysterious in how the final product is going to be,” says Rose. “There is a sense of childlike wonder. It’s kind of going back through the whole process and seeing what the material says it 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 also share with researchers. For example, although nanocellulose itself does not mold itself, if it is contaminated in any way, mold can grow. Farnum learned this firsthand when she experimented with the material in a barn at her home with a black mold infestation.

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

The artists will display their work at the PDC Cellulose Nanomaterials Forum, August 23–25. Walker sees this as a possible debut for the use of nanocellulose in art more broadly.

“We hope that someday soon Maine will offer this material to artists around the world,” Walker says. “This collaboration is a great way to expand the research community working with this unique material.”

As for artists – whether they’re sculpting, experimenting with color or mixing media – their exploration of nanocellulose is just beginning.

“I’m very into it,” Farnum says. “I’m excited about the chance to show the work at the end of the summer, but come on – I need another five years! Work continues to change. Just last night I was researching new recipes and processes. Many of them fail and many of them tell me something else. I have many other instructions that I want to go with it. This is only the beggining.”

Contact: Sam Schipani, [email protected]