Cellulose hydrolysis by acid vapour: towards a more effortless isolation of cellulose nanocrystals
Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) are topical in materials science but their full potential is yet to be fulfilled because of bottlenecks in the production: the process consumes huge amounts of water, recycling the strong acid catalyst is difficult, and purification steps are cumbersome, particularly with lengthy dialysis. Production of CNCs with HCl vapour overcomes many of these difficulties but the dispersion of CNCs from the already hydrolysed fibre matrix is a formidable challenge. This study is a fundamental effort to explore very basic means to facilitate CNC dispersion from cotton linter fibres (filter paper), hydrolysed to levelling off degree of polymerization by HCl vapour. Introduction of carboxylic groups on the cellulose crystal surface proved the most efficient method to alleviate dispersion with good yields (ca. 50 %) and a provisional possibility to tune the CNC length. By contrast, attempts to directly disperse untreated hydrolysed fibres in various organic solvents and aqueous surfactant solutions were unsuccessful. The results showed that hydrolysis of native cellulose fibres by HCl vapour is indeed a viable method for producing CNCs but it has more potential as a pre-treatment step rather than a full-fledged process on its own.