International team visualizes properties of plant cell walls at nanoscale

To optimize biomaterials for reliable, cost-effective paper production, building construction, and biofuel development, researchers often study the structure of plant cells using techniques such as freezing plant samples or placing them in a vacuum. These methods provide valuable data but often cause permanent damage to the samples.

A team of physicists including Ali Passian, a research scientist at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, or CNRS, used state-of-the-art microscopy and spectroscopy methods to provide nondestructive alternatives. Using a technique called scattering-type scanning near-field optical microscopy, the team examined the composition of cell walls from young poplar trees without damaging the samples.

But the team still had other obstacles to overcome. Although plant cell walls are notoriously difficult to navigate due to the presence of complex polymers such as microfibrils — thin threads of biomass that Passian describes as a maze of intertwined spaghetti strings — the team reached a resolution better than 20 nanometers, or about a thousand times smaller than a strand of human hair. This detailed view allowed the researchers to detect optical properties of plant cell materials for the first time across regions large and small, even down to the width of a single microfibril.