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Cellulose nanocrystals for restoring ancient books

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Ancient books fascinate readers and more. Some volumes are real works of art that feed a thriving market, so much so that the main auction houses have sections specialized in books and manuscripts (Christie’s and Sotheby’s, of course; while in Italy there are Bolaffi, Pandolfini, Gonnelli di Firenze and Il Ponte, the latter closed 2019 with almost one million euros in turnover).

Just like for paintings, even for books the concept of perishability takes on clear and defined contours. “Preserving its integrity through restoration is essential to prevent entire literal heritages from being lost – says Simona Budassi, a professional restorer for Charta Lab -. We work with the Ministry, public bodies (archives and libraries) and with private individuals, including the clergy. We have also restored an ecclesiastical book from the end of the 1400s and parchments from the 1300s. In the restoration we use the Japanese paper technique, the advantage of which is that of having very long fibers that allow even minimal overlaps to be made on the original, managing to compensate for the gap with a paper of the same thickness. The problem is with adhesives, which can degrade over time. We use tylose, based on cellulose, which in any case is perishable. It could be that in certain circumstances, that material could undergo degradation due to poor conservation conditions »explains the restorer.

To overcome these problems, a team of researchers from the University of Pisa has developed a new material deriving from sustainable sources and consisting of cellulose nanocrystals, able to offer additional protection to aged paper sheets.

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The new technique conceived by the researchers of the Tuscan university, with the collaboration of the Department of Chemical Sciences and Technologies of the University of Rome Tor Vergata, of the Department of Chemistry of the University of Rome La Sapienza and the National Agency for New Technologies, energy and sustainable economic development, is able to provide a coating that can be removed at any time, making the restoration reversible and avoiding any damage due to the materials applied.

«It is a discovery that transforms the concept of restoration into an innovative, dynamic, sustainable and reversible treatment and that allows us to look to the future in terms of respect for the environment – says Valter Castelvetro, one of the authors of the study -. The nanocellulose, being made of the same material of which the paper is made, respects the identity of the works to be restored. Thanks to the advanced knowledge available on the molecular structures of natural materials and the materials that make up the works of art, it will be increasingly possible to plan interventions to safeguard our cultural heritage as much as possible ».

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