Bowen Humphreys
Bowen Humphreys
Project Manager

Big Things Come in Nano Packages


In the past I’ve written my SBC blog about the cascading benefits of sustainability, about biking and, well… biking. But there are more ways to use the math of sustainability—how 1+1=3—than by wearing spandex shorts. The math of sustainability can also create jobs and solve some of our most pressing problems, not just for the country but here at home as well. The Peak Innovation Conference earlier this October was a great place to see ideas about sustainability in action.

COMM BH Blog GH 2014 10Take for example, the presentation by Dr. Glenda Humiston from the USDA. One of the research projects the Forest Service is working on is a high-tech material called nanocellulose,  also known as nanocrystalline cellulose. Essentially, it’s created when you take plant material and break it down to an extremely basic level, when the tiny fibers form into crystals. The new material formed is stronger and lighter than carbon fiber or Kevlar and, because it comes from plant material, is renewable and non-toxic. Potential uses for this new material include reinforcing building materials like concrete, steel, or carbon fiber for building and transportation, flexible electronic displays, computer components, lightweight body armor, drug delivery aids (used in a pill to help medicine get to the source, for example), cosmetics, and even food additives (because it’s made from plants, it’s non-toxic and the body can digest it).

Being able to use this material in just one of these possibilities would turn the manufacture of it into a multi-million or multi-billion dollar industry. The Sierra Nevada has already been noted as an ideal place to manufacture this high-tech material due to its proximity to larger urban areas such as San Francisco and Reno, coupled with the abundance of biomaterial (woodpulp is normally used to create nanocellulose).

Placing nanocellulose manufacturing plants in the Sierra would provide many jobs for the region, as well as position the area as another hub for high-tech businesses to flock to. That means higher-paying jobs and more money coming into local communities, supporting existing local businesses and adding to the tax base for local governments. Thus the benefit would not only be to those working to manufacture nanocellulose, but also to the community at large, helping to preserve local economies and culture. The math of sustainability somehow gives you more than you paid for: 1+1=3.

With the Sierra getting hit by larger and larger wildfires, more people are calling to reduce the amount of fuel available to wildfires through thinning out forests. One of the problems is that much of the fuel is in the form of bracken-like plants such as juniper, which can’t be used for traditional wood building materials like Douglas fir or Ponderosa pine trees can, and therefore sells at a much lower price on the market. But because nanocellulose only needs simple biomaterial such as wood pulp, we could remove wildfire fuel and lower the risk of massive wildfires while creating a high-tech product. 1+1=3.

COMM BH Blog biomass 2014 10Getting rid of extra wildfire fuel may also help the drought. According to a white paper by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, UC Berkeley Center for Forestry, and the Environmental Defense Fund, reducing the amount of biomass could help to improve water runoff by anywhere from 9-16% for downstream water users—pretty much the rest of the state of California, as frequent readers of the SBC blog may remember the oft-quoted statistic that 65% of California’s developed water comes from the Sierra Nevada. By reducing the density of forest through forest thinning, you not only reduce the amount of water that gets absorbed by plants, but you also increase the amount of snowpack that makes it to the ground to turn into groundwater—instead of getting caught on tree branches and evaporating into the air. Get rid of overgrowth in the forest, and you have more water and snow reaching the ground, more water reaching aquifers instead of being absorbed by plants, and more water reaching downstream communities. Obviously this is not a panacea and won’t cure the drought, but for many people every little bit helps. 1+1=3.

Describing the benefits of sustainability math can sometimes sound like a snake-oil sales pitch if you don’t understand the connections behind everything. “It can provide jobs, save the farm from fire, and cure my lumbago?? Give me a dozen bottles!” But by using sustainability math, we can improve our own lives, our community, and our world. It’s not just a win-win. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.