Rationalizing cellulose (in)solubility: reviewing basic physicochemical aspects and role of hydrophobic interactions
Despite being the world’s most abundant natural polymer and one of the most studied, cellulose is still challenging researchers. Cellulose is known to be insoluble in water and in many organic solvents, but can be dissolved in a number of solvents of intermediate properties, like N-methylmorpholine N-oxide and ionic liquids which, apparently, are not related. It can also be dissolved in water at extreme pHs, in particular if a cosolute of intermediate polarity is added. The insolubility in water is often referred to strong intermolecular hydrogen bonding between cellulose molecules. Revisiting some fundamental polymer physicochemical aspects (i.e. intermolecular interactions) a different picture is now revealed: cellulose is significantly amphiphilic and hydrophobic interactions are important to understand its solubility pattern. In this paper we try to provide a basis for developing novel solvents for cellulose based on a critical analysis of the intermolecular interactions involved and mechanisms of dissolution.