Cellulose photonics: designing functionality and optical appearance of natural materials
Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer on Earth as it is found in every plant cell wall; therefore, it represents one of the most promising natural resources for the fabrication of sustainable materials. In plants, cellulose is mainly used for structural integrity, however, some species organise cellulose in helicoidal nano-architectures generating strong iridescent colours. Recent research has shown that cellulose nanocrystals, CNCs, isolated from natural fibres, can spontaneously self-assemble into architectures that resemble the one producing colouration in plants. Therefore, CNCs are an ideal candidate for the development of new photonic materials that can find use to substitute conventional pigments, which are often harmful to humans and to the environment. However, various obstacles still prevent a widespread use of cellulose-based photonic structures. For instance, while the CNC films can display a wide range of colours, a precise control of the optical appearance is still difficult to achieve. The intrinsic low thermal stability and brittleness of cellulose-based films strongly limit their use as photonic pigments at the industrial scale. Moreover, it is challenging to integrate them into composites to obtain further functionality while preserving their optical response. In this thesis, I present a series of research contributions that make progress towards addressing these challenges. First, I use an external magnetic field to tune the CNC films scattering response. Then, I demonstrate how it is possible to tailor the optical appearance and the mechanical properties of the films as well as to enhance their functionality, by combining CNCs with other polymers. Finally, I study the thermal properties of CNC films to improve the retention of the helicoidal arrangement at high temperatures and to explore the potential use of this material in industrial fabrication processes, such as hot-melt extrusion.