Monika Österberg develops from wood a contender to oil
Professor Monika Österberg, what do you research and why?
I research natural materials, primarily natural polymers that can be obtained from wood, with the goal of improving their properties by modifying their surfaces. The goal of my work is to be able to replace oil-based products with renewable natural materials.
One of the materials I am investigating is nanocellulose, which is comprised of very finely chopped up normal cellulose fibres. At the nanoscale, the fibre’s wooden nature disappears and what results is nature’s own reinforcement material which can be used for lightweight and durable structures. Applications for this can be found in areas such as medical science and the packaging industry as well as in transport, where a lightweight but durable material could lead to fuel savings.
Recently, I have also explored new uses for lignin, for example by developing spherical nanolignin particles which could replace phenol and formaldehyde in wood adhesives.
How did you end up as a researcher?
I was just about to graduate when I heard about a postgraduate study option in Stockholm. The work was related to surface chemistry, which at the time I knew nothing about, but I went nevertheless to the interview and I got the place. As soon as I started, I got really excited about my research, and I’m now continuing on the same path – you could say then that I was in the right place at the right time.
What have been the highlights of your career?
One of the highlights has been bringing nanocellulose research to Finland – I was very much involved in both the first project in 2004 as well as in establishing the Finnish Centre for Nanocellulosic Technologies, which was run jointly by UPM and the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT).
There are also hopefully many more highlights to come :)
What is the most important quality for a researcher?
The most important qualities are enthusiasm and persistence. You must believe in your own ideas and stand by them, because when you have invented something truly new then normally people don’t initially understand its importance.
What do you expect from the future?
I have three big aspirations for my career. The first is that I would be able to continue researching and be at the cutting edge of my field worldwide. The second is that the postgraduate students and post-doctoral students that I am tutoring would do well in their careers. Because I am a practical person, my third goal is that one of my inventions would become a product that truly changes the world. I am quite excited about modifying textile surfaces with wax particles to produce a waterproof but breathable surface – a bit like nature’s own Gore-Tex, but without the harmful chemicals.
Monika Österberg and the other recently tenured professors at Aalto University will present their research during the multidisciplinary afternoon on 12 October at 14:15. We hope to see you there!
Photo by Anni Hanén