In May 2017, University of Luxembourg physicist and ERC grantee Prof Dr Jan Lagerwall and former University of Luxembourg Prof Dr Tanja Schilling organised the interdisciplinary conference ‘Twisted’, which brought together chemists, chemical engineers, physicists and biologists to discuss various aspects of nanotechnology, such as possible future applications of cellulose nanorods. The conference was a part of Lagerwall’s and Schilling’s FNR CORE project MISONANCE.
‘Nano’ is a term one comes across more and more, but what does ‘nano’ actually mean? The term ‘nano’ was first introduced in the 1940s, but did not get widespread usage until the 1970s-1980s. To put it simply, ‘nano’ is today often used to signify something that is minuscule in size: One nanometer, for example, is one-billionth of a meter.
The two-day Twisted conference brought together scientific minds from several disciplines with the topics discussed being just as diverse, as Prof Dr Jan Lagerwall, Professor in the Physics and Materials Science Research Unit at the University of Luxembourg, explains:
“We had participants who use self-organised minuscule helix structures – twisted structures, hence the name of the conference – to, for example, make glasses that appear coloured, without containing any dye. They have some resemblance to holograms on a credit card, and people are exploring their potential use as a security measure. Other materials discussed at the conference are very porous and therefore make good catalysts, because they have large surface areas on which chemical reactions can take place.”
Strong, light-weight materials inspired by nature
Participants also explored how cellulose materials can be chemically modified in order to be used in composite materials of various kinds. In this way it might be possible to produce very strong but light-weight materials that get their special properties from an internal helix arrangement of the components, just like in the impressive examples nature provides us with, for instance in shells of crabs and lobsters.
“We discussed experimental research on these nanostructures as well as research where these are investigated using computer models”, Prof Dr Lagerwall explains, adding:
“The particles at the heart of the conference, assembling into these helical structures on their own (self-organisation), are only a few hundred nanometres (around one millionth of a millimetre) long and a few nanometres thick. The idea for the conference came from a joint project between me and Tanja Schilling, which looks at cellulose nanorods and their ability to ‘self-organise’. It is this self-organisation into a periodic structure that gives our materials their iridescent colours.”
Cellulose is the main substance that makes up the cell walls and fibers of plants, and is for example used in the manufacturing of paper. The conference saw participants from several fields come together to discuss various questions around nanorods and cellulose, as Prof Dr Lagerwall explains:
“We had chemists and chemical engineers, who work on the production of materials. As physicists, my colleague Tanja Schilling and I look more at what happens when the rods build organised structures on their own and for example also at what visual properties this gives rise to.”
Studying cellulose from various approaches
Prof Dr Lagerwall explains that the conference participants whose work focuses on applications, typically look at how cellulose can be used in new technology, such as security measures, while physicists with an interest in biology study rod-shaped viruses, which can have properties similar to our cellulose nanorods. He says:
“This is the first conference that brought together these different topics, and participants were very excited to see how much they have in common.”
Jan Lagerwall explains that the motivation to hold the conference was “the rapidly growing interest in liquid crystals formed by nanocrystals of cellulose or chitin, filamentous viruses, carbon nanotubes and similar rod-like nanoparticles in suspensions in water or other isotropic solvents.”
The conference covered topics from fundamental scientific challenges to application opportunities, organised into four topical sessions:
- Advanced materials derived from chiral nanorods(keynote speaker: Mark MacLachlan)
- Theory and simulations of cholesteric phases(keynote speaker: Mark Wilson)
- Chiral nanorod suspensions: from particle tuning to self-assembly(keynote speaker: Derek Gray)
- The route to applications(keynote speaker: Silvia Vignolini)
More about Prof Dr Jan Lagerwalls and Prof Dr Tanja Schilling’s CORE project ‘Materials Innovation with Self-Ordered NanoCellulose: from fundamental physics of self-assembly to realization of commercially appealing functional films’ (MISONANCE)
Published 24 May 2017
 Etymology Dictionary states the term ‘nano’ was first introduced 1947 (at 14th conference of the Union Internationale de Chimie) as a prefix for units of one thousand-millionth part, from Greek nanos “a dwarf.”