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Proposal: CELLUWIN: 3D printing for cellulose

For a feasibility study on creating 3D structures, using raw cellulose as a starting material, as a proof of principle for the use of cellulose as a modern building material.

The Idea

Cellulose is the world’s most abundant polymer; it forms the basis for paper, cotton and wood. The vast majority of cellulose is found in the biomass of plants and algae; making cellulose an environmentally friendly, renewable, biopolymer. The mechanical strength of cellulose is due to the self-assembly of individual polymers into tight fibres. Unfortunately bundling of the cellulose polymers renders the cellulose inert and insoluble – making it problematic for use.

Cellulose can be functionalised via dissolution of cellulose fibres into individual polymers via chemical treatment. This allows the cellulose polymers to be manipulated and re-formed into tailor made cellulose composites. This has the additional benefits of decreasing the use of oil derived plastics, but also would allow the use of cellulose from food waste (such as the juicing industry).

Initially this was proposed as a renewable source of material for 3D printing machines, as a replacement / substitute for plastic materials. Preliminary discussion about the use of cellulose in 3D printing quickly revealed an extended audience that would like to further develop the use of cellulose as a modern material.


Who we are

Thomas Torode (Postdoctoral researcher, SLCU)

Marco Aita (Postdoctoral researcher, SLCU)

Ward Hills (CEO, OpenIOLabs)



The project will be split into two sub-projects; (A) The functionalisation and formulation of cellulose & (B) The application of cellulose as a biomaterial. These subprojects aim to allow the overall project to advance in two directions at the same time. In order to keep a constant flow between these two projects and integrate a wider participation in the project, we will also establish frequent CELLUWIN user group meet-ups (C).

A) The functionalisation and formulation of cellulose.

Aim: To process raw cellulose into a functional, workable material.

Methods: Raw cellulose from G. xylinus will be used as the initial starting material, as it is easily obtainable, this will hopefully be later replaced by waste plant material. Cellulose will be split into individual polymers (functionalised) and then processed into various forms to test for the best suitable formulation of cellulose for use as a material.

People: Thomas Torode.

B) The application of cellulose as a biomaterial.

Aim: Test the various formulations of cellulose and apply them to 3D printing techniques.

Methods: Variations of the cellulose will be tested for feasibility in use for various applications. This will draw inspiration from the users of the CELLUWIN group, and their specific requirements for material properties. So far interest has been raised in application of cellulose in the fashion industry and in creation of biocompatible structures for medical diagnostics. A 3D printer has also been kindly volunteered for this project (via Rob Voisey).

People: Marco Aita, Ward Hills.

C) CELLUWIN user group meet-ups.

Aim: Establish a user group to co-ordinate and encourage cellulose research.



In order to maintain continuous feedback between the two sub-projects, a third aspect of this project will be twice monthly meet ups. This will maintain a strong momentum for the project, which will be essential in achieving the overall goal of cellulose 3D printing. The meetings will be advertised online via e-mail and Meetup. This will allow an extended audience and be valuable for creating a dynamic melting pot of ideas for applications of the project. The venue will vary between The Panton Arms (for a more general, open meeting), The Sainsbury Laboratory (for biochemical sessions) and MakeSpace (for 3D printing sessions).


Benefits and Outcomes

The two major outcomes of this project will be the use of cellulose as a biomaterial and the establishment of a CELLUWIN user group.

We aim to create 3D structures, using raw cellulose as a starting material, as a proof of principle for the use of cellulose as a modern building material. This will be an enabling technological advancement which will lead to future development of the overall project. This would be published in an open access journal, making all processing steps and protocols freely available. This would circumvent the need for patent protection and make any knowledge directly available to the wider public.

The long term goal of the CELLUWIN user group would be building future collaborations, expanding the range of applications for cellulose as a biomaterial. Towards the end of the initial 6 months funding we would aim to submit applications for advanced uses of the cellulose biomaterial applications. This would involve the synthetic modulation of the cellulose structure to alter mechanical properties of the final structure, or the incorporation of conductive material into the material.



MakeSpace membership 6 months 6 x 40 £ 240

Refreshments for CELLUWIN user group meetings 12x meetings 12 x 30 £ 360

Biochemical consumables £ 1700

Electronics & 3D printer adaptation costs £ 1700


The Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative provides a hub for anyone interested in Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge, including researchers, commercial partners and external collaborators. 

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