Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) are emerging nanomaterials with a large range of potential applications. CNCs are typically produced through acid hydrolysis with sulfuric acid; however, phosphoric acid has the advantage of generating CNCs with higher thermal stability. This paper presents a design of experiments approach to optimize the hydrolysis of CNCs from cotton with phosphoric acid. Hydrolysis time, temperature and acid concentration were varied across nine experiments and a linear least-squares regression analysis was applied to understand the effects of these parameters on CNC properties. In all but one case, rod-shaped nanoparticles with a high degree of crystallinity and thermal stability were produced. A statistical model was generated to predict CNC length, and trends in phosphate content and zeta potential were elucidated. The CNC length could be tuned over a relatively large range (238–475 nm) and the polydispersity could be narrowed most effectively by increasing the hydrolysis temperature and acid concentration. The CNC phosphate content was most affected by hydrolysis temperature and time; however, the charge density and colloidal stability were considered low compared with sulfuric acid hydrolysed CNCs. This study provides insight into weak acid hydrolysis and proposes ‘design rules’ for CNCs with improved size uniformity and charge density.
This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘New horizons for cellulose nanotechnology’.