When does plant science stop being plant science? Here at Warwick, the Warwick Manufacturing Group made a nano-cellulose steering wheel with raw material from carrots. It resides in the Science Museum as part of the Nano-Cellulose exhibition, which features a car made entirely of biomaterials. The raw material was plant biomass, yet the scientists and engineers who work with it are not ‘plant scientists’.
This is just one of a lot of articles I’ve seen about nano-cellulose, a super-strong and light material which is conductive and absorbent too, so it has the potential to be used for pretty much everything. It is made from renewable raw material from plant or algal biomass. It sounds like a boon for plant science, a great plant synthetic biology product – but it is definitely a materials science baby.
Of course there are differences between developing super-materials from plant biomass and what we usually think of as ‘plant science’. Plant scientists aim to understand and/or improve plants and plant products, while materials scientists see plant biomass as a raw material to be worked with, not on.
Plant scientists should not let this difference stop them seizing the opportunities presented by increasing interest in nano-cellulose and other biomaterials. Now more than ever we can highlight the absolute dependence of humanity on plants, and promote the importance of plant science funding for improved crop production for food, energy, and materials. It is also the ideal time to start building and strengthening interdisciplinary connections.
Something I’ve noticed recently is a feeling among the plant science community that there is a need for more interdisciplinary networking and collaboration opportunities. Plant science is already crucial for agricultural innovations, and even here there are only a few opportunities for bench scientists and agriculturalists to talk to each other. Plant science can make a difference to biomaterials production, but first new connections need to be forged between two very different groups of researchers.
As with any supply chain, it is important that relevant groups are able to communicate their needs and capabilities to each other. If this were possible, it would improve the economic and environmental sustainability of biomaterial production.
Does anyone have any experience of working, however distantly, with a biomaterials group? I’d be interested to find out!