Wood Science 101 - Cellulose

I've been meaning to start a feature for a while now that addresses some of the simplest, but most common questions I get from the general public. No discourses on topics like self-organizing microtubule networks or the cell wall structure of wood. I rarely get questions on those topics, and when I do, I usually back away slowly.

But folks do ask simple questions that have fairly interesting answers. Like, "is softwood softer than hardwood?" and "Wood flooring...you mean like Pergo?" Over the course of this series I'll try to cover some of these basic questions through simple anecdotes that you can share with your friends to display your intellectual prowess on the topic of wood. You know, great conversation starters for really dull parties.

A Wall Street Journal article that ran yesterday gives me the opportunity to get it all started with a topic that has been on everyone's mind lately...Cellulose!  At least, it was on the mind of one inquiring WSJ reporter on what must have been a slow news day. She produced this excellent article on the use of cellulose as a food additive...

"Why wood pulp makes ice cream creamier"

Now that's a party topic if I ever heard one!

From Wikipedia:

"Cellulose is an organic compound with the formula (C6H10O5)n, a polysaccharide consisting of a linear chain of several hundred to over ten thousand β(1→4) linked D-glucose units."
Got that?

Let's try it in GoWood-speak.

Source: faculty.fmcc.suny.edu
Cellulose is one of the basic building blocks of wood and other woody plants, the others being hemi-cellulose, lignin, and and a small percentage of various extraneous materials that we usually call "extractives". The easiest way to think of these components in wood is that the cellulose and hemicelluloses are fibers that are bonded together by the lignin, with the extractives just kind of hanging around inside and attached to the fibers. As wood is processed into paper, most of the lignin, hemicellulose, and extractive content is removed with steam, pressure, and/or chemical treatment, leaving just the cellulose tightly matted together into a sheet of paper. 

When cellulose and the hemicelluloses are even more highly processed, they become the food additives that are highlighted in the ice cream article above. This explains why you may have discovered your two-year-old munching away on a page from Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel; cellulose really does have some properties (not to mention fiber!) which our bodies sort of naturally crave, even though they really can't properly digest it.

Cellulose is also the most common organic element on earth, which is why many, many scientists are dedicated to developing processes to convert it to biofuels. With so much potential, we ought to be able to make it work!

So that's cellulose in a nutshell, or as I like to say, more than you ever wanted to know.  For you three who really want to know all there is to know about cellulose, I'll try to get our Penn State Wood Chemistry professor, Dr. Nicole Robitaille-Brown, to start a Wood Science 501 blog series. She sprinkles cellulose on her breakfast cereal every day just for fun.

You may be interested in this website where 192 different cellulose products are on display for sale. All manufactured in...China, of course!

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