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Discovering Fibres: Cellulose Products

Humans have been extracting and using fibres from plants for many thousands of years but once the pioneering chemists of the 19th Century starting investigating, new products were derived from cellulose. The first were plastics.

The History of Plastics

Introduction to Plastics - from IPS Flow Systems(pdf 35.9kB)

One reason to develop a plastic was the need for billiard balls, because the world was running out of elephant ivory which was used then to make the balls. J. W. Hyatt further developed the product Parkesine, cellulose nitrate, as a replacement. The product was called Celluloid. The most common uses of Celluloid today are for table tennis balls and guitar picks. In the 1920’s and 30’s celluloid was used for the side windows of cars. After a few years they lost their transparency and had to be replaced.

Because the plastic did not last well and could explode if overheated, these days billiard balls are made of synthetic resins such as Bakelite.

Another use of Celluloid was as the base for movie films but once again, the films deteriorated and caught fire easily if they jammed in the projector, so safer films were invented after a few cinemas burnt down.

In addition to browsing through the reources below you may like to try some of the Student Investigations as classroom activities

What is cellulose?

Cellulose is made by chloroplasts in plant cells from carbon dioxide, water and sunshine.

Simple sugar molecules (monomers) made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms are linked together in various ways to make starch chains and even longer chains, up to 10 0000 monomers, to make the cellulose. Because there are many joined monomers, the molecules are called polymers. Because they are made by living organisms they are called biopolymers; other biopolymers are proteins and DNA.

Biopolymers can be broken down by fungi and bacteria. They can be renewed by growing more plants . They store carbon and carbon dioxide so they are good for the atmosphere. They can be put in a household compost bin for recycling.

Biopolymers and Bioplastics - from BioBasics: Science and the Issues

A safer, cleaner, greener way to ship! - from Puffy Stuff

Biodegradable Starch-based Polymers - from Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and The Arts

Cellulose Structure

Cellulose - from Science Clarified

Cellulose - from London South Bank University

Cellulose Manufacture

Cellulose Processing - from Organic Materials Review Institute, detailed information about the properties, manufacture and uses of cellulose products (pdf 271.8kB)

Cellulose extraction from wood for analysis of carbon isotopes - from University of Sydney (pdf 18.5kb)

Cellulose extraction from wood (KJA-1) - laboratory procedure to remove lignin, wood is converted into fine slivers, treated with a solvent eg acetone to remove lipids and resins and then heated under reflux with dioxane and acid mixture to remove lignin followed by neutralization with an alkaline solution eg sodium hydrogen carbonate. Students could draw a flow diagram from this information.(pdf 31.1kB)

Lignin Isolation from pulp - description of experiment from Institute of Paper Science and Technology, Georga Tech. (pdf 65.2kB)Asuitable source of pulp for experiments would be heavy brown paper bags

Online Manuals and Articles

Methocel Cellulose Ethers Technical Manual - from Dow Wolf, well presented 30 page document with much practical information (pdf246.7kB)

Building the Future of Cellulosics - from Dow Wolf, has some good information(pdf 657.6kB)

Foam enhancement products - brochure from Dow (pdf 1.01MB)

Commercial products

Paper, cardboard and natural fibre textiles (see our Stage 4 materials) are made from cellulose fibres. The cellulose can also be used as the raw material for many modern products.

Common name 
Carboxymethyl celluloseCMC
methyl celluloseMC
hydroxypropyl methylcellulose and microcrystalline celluloseMCC
cellulose ethers 

Adhesives and binders such as methyl cellulose

Fibers designed by Nature - from JRS RETTENMAIER & SOEHNE, fibre industry

Wallpaper Adhesives - from Wallpaper Installation

Welcome to the Poly Website - from Polyfilla, Selleys

Converted by bacteria to ethanol (alcohol) for biofuel
Building Industry

The Chemistry of Building Materials - from Construction Chemistry

Building Insulation

Cellulose Insulation - from National Fiber

The Green Thumb: Paper Chase (Part 1) - pros and cons of cellulose insulation, from Clarkston Insulation (pdf 135.8kB)

The Green Thumb: Paper Chase (Part 2) - types of cellulose insulation, from Clarkston Insulation (pdf 146.8kB)

Cellulose: Building Insulation with High Recovered Content, Low Embodied Energy - from Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association (pdf 16.7kB)

Cellophane: History and Uses

Cellophane - from About.com: Inventions

Fascinating facts about the invention of Cellophane by Jacques Brandenberger in 1908 - from IdeaFinder

Cellophane - from McGraw-Hill's Access Science

Cellulose Film: An Old Dog With New Tricks - from Food Manufacturing

Cellophane tape (Sticky Tape)

Inventions to Mention - from Scotch Tape, 3M - historical timeline

Fascinating facts about the invention of Scotch Cellophane Tape by Dick Drew in 1930 - from Idea Finder

The History of Scotch Tape Richard Drew (1886-1982) from About.com, Inventions

Sticky Tape...arrgg It is not popular with librarians! - from Preservation, National Library of Australia

Cellulose acetate

Degradation of Cellulose Acetate - from National Library of Australia

Cellulose acetate - from A to Z of Materials

Acetate products - from Celanese Corporation

Cellulose Acetate Flake - from Global Acetate Manufacture Association


Membrane filters - from Bonnet Equipment (pdf 961.4kB)

Dialysis: An Overview - from Thermo Scientific (pdf 169.5kB)

Dialysis tubing - from Newton BBS, Educational Programmes, Argonne National Laboratory

Dialysis tubing - Image from Southern Biological

Dietary Fibres

Dietary Fiber - from University of Nebraska(pdf 264.5kB)

Food Additives ANZ Standards Numbers
Microcrystalline Cellulose460
Methyl cellulose (thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier)461
Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier)464
Sodium carboxymethylcellulose (thickener, stabilizer)466

Food Additives - from Food Standards Australian New Zealand

What is an emulsifier? - from The European Food Emulsifiers Manufacturers Association

Dietary fibers for the food industry - from J.Rettenmaier & Söhne

Food Additives Index


Cellulose Extraction Thimbles - from Whatman


Controlled Release Fertilizers: Trends and Technologies - from Pharmaceutical Information for You

Products - Hemp Mulch - from Ecofibre

Masking tape

Fascinating facts about the invention of Masking Tape by Dick Drew in 1925 - from Idea Finder

Microbial Cellulose

A developing field of study. The cellulose may be valuable for wound dressings.

Production of biocellulose (bacterial cellulose) - from Chemical Resources Laboratory

Newly Created Microbe Produces Cellulose And Sugars For Biofuels - news item from Science Daily
Modified cellulose Products

Klucel G Health & Safety Data Sheet: KLUCEL GF & EF (SY26), Hydroxypropyl cellulose - from CHARNWOOD BOOKS


Methyl Cellulose
Methyl Cellulose - from American Cancer Society

Methyl Cellulose - from HealthWise


Dow Expedients: Controlled release systems - from Dow


Lyocell Fiber - from Fibersource

Lyocell - One Fiber, Many Faces - fact sheet from Ohio State University Extension: Consumer and Textile Sciences




Cellulose sponge - from Industrial Commercial Supply

Real Sponges or Artificial Sponges: Which is Better for the Environment? - from About.com, Environment

New materials: Nanopaper

Bulletproof Paper Is Stronger Than Kevlar - from Discover Magazine

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Last Update: Monday, 30-Apr-2012 14:08:46 AEST
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