Institute for Boundary Interactions – Prospecting for Material Futures

Dukes Wood whilst suggestive of a naturalised English woodland is managed and maintained through a structured programme of non-intervention. There is a strict code of practice when it comes to the wood’s upkeep as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).


[Image credit: Mark Selby]

This status evolved directly from the woodlands’ industrial heritage as the UK’s first onshore oil field. Clearings made to house oil-drilling equipment re-naturalised over time to become new habitats for contrasting and rare or unusual species. In addition, an early example of corporate reclamation introduced a programme of planting non-native trees following industrial vacation of the site. As such the site itself is a composite of man-made and organic processes; an antagonism between the artificial and the natural.

With this in mind as a backdrop to our research, we wanted to begin by exploring the site’s relationship with material production and futurism. During the post-war period of the 50’s and 60’s new industrial processes and material sciences enabled the ability to design and make exciting new products.

Amongst these was plastic, a promising new material whose properties allowed for domestic objects of seemingly limitless new forms, shapes and colours. Lubricated by an abundance of oil, it fuelled western consumerist imagination as a material of the future, and commodities made from plastic were seen as progressive luxury products [2].  Now however, it is the material of the mass produced and the cheap – temporary and disposable, but not degradable, and only occasionally recyclable

Nano Crystalline Cellulose, Image: Next Nature

There is then, an evident tension in the relationship between the natural and the man made. Our given site, is a place of great natural diversity in delicate ecological balance. However, this status is greatly indebted to the extensive human and technological interventions over the years that result from its role in the production of oil.

Plastic is also a material of tensions. As a material derived from natural substances (commonly oil, but also cellulose, and organic proteins) it represents an antagonism between the artificial and the natural. We might argue that the modern world has been shaped by plastic to the extent that it is difficult to imagine everyday life without it. But at the same time it is impossible to ignore the damage that its production and use has caused to the planet.

It was at this point, as a way of exploring these tensions, we became interested in the possibility of making plastics from materials available on the site. In contrast to the increasingly problematic relationship between society and traditional methods of producing industrial materials, we started looking at new kinds of plastics made in more environmentally sensitive ways.

Beginning with learning more about natural polymers, we encountered a new ‘wonder’ material called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC).  NCC is made from treated cellulose, one of the primary molecules that makes up the cell walls of plants and trees. At a molecular level NCC has a crystalline structure in contrast to the string-like structure of other polymer-based plastics.  As a result it has many of the material properties of a metal; it is an electrical conductor and has an incredibly high strength to weight ratio (8 times that of stainless steel). It is also transparent and biodegradable; the latter allowing it to be used in natural systems, including the human body, with little adverse effect. Importantly, it isn’t necessary to fell trees in order to make NCC. It’s nano scale structure allows for it to be easily made using fallen twigs, leaves, or even sawdust [1].

These properties make it a material that seems to be able to do it all. Japan-based Pioneer Electronics is applying it to the next generation of flexible electronic displays, while IBM is using it to create components for computers. Even the US army is getting in on the act, using it to make lightweight body armour and ballistic glass. [1].

Celluforce En from Departement Web on Vimeo.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between the plastics of the post-war era and this new material.  The rhetoric surrounding NCC is aspirational and hopeful, it promises new things and new solutions to old problems. As plastic did, NCC seems to set its sights firmly on ‘the future’. This relationship between the future a material (or technology) might promise, and that which it might deliver, is another aspect of our interest in this project.

Over the coming months, we are planning on visiting the Cellulose and Natural Materials Group at the University of Exeter, to interview Professor Stephen Eichorn and get a better understanding of the NCC production process. Alongside this we are going to be investing in laboratory equipment to test fabricating NCC on a small scale using plant matter from the site and other areas.  Our intention is to reveal the process of producing this material and interrogate what it might mean for this place to return to being a material producing community.


[2] J.L. Meikle (1997) American Plastic: A Cultural History. Rutgers University Press.

By I.B.I


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