Nanomechanics of Cellulose Deformation Reveal Molecular Defects that Facilitate Natural Deconstruction

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus Citations


Technologies surrounding utilization of cellulosic materials have been integral to human society for millennia. In many materials, controlled introduction of defects provides a means to tailor properties, introduce reactivity, and modulate functionality for various applications. The importance of defects in defining the behavior of cellulose is becoming increasingly recognized. However, fully exploiting defects in cellulose to benefit biobased materials and conversion applications will require an improved understanding of the mechanisms of defect induction and corresponding molecular-level consequences. We have identified a fundamental relationship between the macromolecular structure and mechanical behavior of cellulose nanofibrils whereby molecular defects may be induced when the fibrils are subjected to bending stress exceeding a certain threshold. By nanomanipulation, imaging, and molecular modeling, we demonstrate that cellulose nanofibrils tend to form kink defects in response to bending stress, and that these macromolecular features are often accompanied by breakages in the glucan chains. Direct observation of deformed cellulose fibrils following partial enzymatic digestion reveals that processive cellulases exploit these defects as initiation sites for hydrolysis. Collectively, our findings provide a refined understanding of the interplay between the structure, mechanics, and reactivity of cellulose assemblies.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)9825-9830
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - 14 May 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-73748


  • Atomic force microscopy
  • Cellulases
  • Cellulose
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Quantum mechanics


Dive into the research topics of 'Nanomechanics of Cellulose Deformation Reveal Molecular Defects that Facilitate Natural Deconstruction'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this