2022 KINGFA Young Investigator Award

The 2022 KINGFA Young Investigator Award winner is Dr Koon-Yang Lee, Professor of Polymer Engineering at Imperial College London. Koon-Yang leads the Future Materials Group at Imperial College London, a group focussing on the development of chemical engineering-driven nanocellulose composite innovations. His work is highly multi-disciplinary, with an emphasis on the development and manufacturing of nanocellulose materials with a focus on tailoring the interface between two (or more) phases to bridge the gap between chemistry, chemical engineering, physics, materials science and engineering, underpinned by the core research principles of (i) simple design, (ii) manufacturability and (iii) radical effects. The specific focus of his research group is to develop cellulose nanocomposite innovations that will target engineering applications that cannot be achieved by conventional polymers alone and could serve as alternative to traditional glass fibre-reinforced polymers. His research activities can be broadly classified into three categories:

  • Cellulose nanopaper as building block for high performance advanced materials. The pre-requisite to producing high performance nanocellulose-reinforced polymer composites is to incorporate high loadings of nanocellulose (typically >30 vol%) into the polymer matrix. However, it is not possible to disperse such high loading fraction of nanocellulose in a polymer matrix. His group has pioneered the use of high-performance cellulose nanopaper as two-dimensional reinforcement for polymers. His research also showed that high performance cellulose nanopaper-reinforced polymer composites can be produced using a simple lamination process. This ultimately led to his research in the use of cellulose nanopaper for high value transparent armour applications.
  • Understanding the mechanical behaviour of cellulose nanopaper. The formation of nanocellulose film is intensively researched but there is a significant knowledge gap in the mechanical behaviour of cellulose nanopaper. Koon-Yang’s group has been unravelling the mechanical response of cellulose nanopaper to fill in this knowledge gap as part of our quest to engineer ever stronger nanocellulose materials. His group has conducted the first ever comprehensive study on the tensile testing of cellulose nanopapers, providing the nanocellulose community with a “best practice guide” in cellulose nanopaper testing. Koon-Yang’s group also discovered that cellulose nanopaper displayed an anomalous tensile response at intermediate tensile strain rates. Instead of strain rate hardening behaviour like most common engineering materials, cellulose nanopaper does not exhibit any strain rate sensitivity and this is due to the high degree of hornification in cellulose nanopaper. This discovery has significant consequence in the use of cellulose nanopaper for packaging applications.
  • Nanocellulose as binder. The main challenges in the commercialisation of nanocellulose for advanced engineering application is its high cost and its strong hornification effect. Koon-Yang’s group has developed an elegant, intrinsically scalable and cost-effective technology for binding loose natural fibres together to create an in-plane non-woven fibre mat, utilising only low loading fraction (<10 wt.-%) of nanocellulose, with no extra chemical modification steps involved during the production, utilising only the strong hornification effect of nanocellulose. Such innovation can easily offset the high cost of nanocellulose due to the low loading fraction of nanocellulose used and create materials with dramatically improved mechanical performance that conventional materials cannot achieve. This contribution is a substantial step towards developing nanocellulose-enhanced products that can easily penetrate the mass market.

Congratulations to Koon-Yang!

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