The objective of this grant is to investigate the feasibility of cellulose nanocrystals as an alternative to silicon for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). The structure, mechanical properties, surface chemistry, and ability to self-assemble into well defined architectures over multiple scales make cellulose nanocrystals particularly attractive building blocks for advanced materials. In this research, cellulose nanocrystals with controlled size distributions and surface chemistries will be processed to form dry films and fabricated into devices using conventional MEMS fabrication techniques such as lithography and etching. Finally, the properties of the resulting devices will be characterized to yield an interrelation between the cellulose nanocrystal MEMS device properties, the cellulose nanocrystal dispersion microstructure, and film processing conditions.
If successful, this research will enable renewable cellulose materials to be used as an inexpensive alternative to the high-cost electronic grade silicon, which is currently the industry standard for advanced sensor platforms. Results of this research have the potential to transform the MEMS industry, as well as other silicon based technologies. This would have considerable economic impact; Yole Developpement projects the MEMS industry will exceed $13 billion in 2012. Even if the full potential of this research is not realized, it will provide fundamental insight into the processing of nanocylinders for advanced materials applications. The research will also enhance a strong collaboration between Chemical Engineering faculty at Auburn University and Clemson University. The research will contribute to the education and training of two Ph. D. students, one post doctoral researcher, and four undergraduate researchers. Graduate student rotations in each of the PIs laboratory will provide a diverse perspective and training for the advanced materials workforce. The research team will also engage in outreach activities to foster the development of the next generation of scientists and engineers.