In a world with no metal resources existing in a usable fashion a civilization with tech similar to that of the Mayans discovers a way to make nanocellulose, the ultimate natural polymer from algae. It is known to be useful in hundreds of applications. Could it be used to make swords, spears or any useful melee weapon?

The properties of nanocellulose are listed below:

  • Lightweight
  • Stiffer than Kevlar®
  • Electrically conductive
  • Non-toxic
  • The crystalline form is transparent, and gas impermeable
  • It can be produced in large quantities in a cost-effective manner
  • It has a very high tensile strength - 8 times that of steel
  • It is highly absorbent when used as a basis for aerogels or foams.

The raw material - cellulose - is the most abundant polymer on earth

listed here are the links: https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=3139


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    $\begingroup$ Actually it has a tensile strength similar to aluminium; steel is about 5 times stronger. What is 8 times greater than steel's is its strength over weight ratio. With all our tehnology at the beginning of the 21st century we still struggle to produce any useful quantity; that claim that it can be produced in large quantity in a cost-effective manner is pure hype. That a stone age civilization could mass produce it is beyond belief. And in the end it's still cellulose -- a lightweight material which burns like paper. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need nanocellulose? Wood works quite well as a weapon, especially if your opponents don't have metal either. Some examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… the Aztec macahuitl, any number of stick-fighting disciplines, or the simple baseball bat :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ seems unlikely to be practical, bone, stone, ivory, and hardwood weapons seem more practical. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ Tensile strength is not a great measure here, rope has a great tensile strength, no one would try to make a sword out of it. swords need to be strong against bending (which is not the same thing as stiff glass is stiff), durable, and hard. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Why would you, when things like the Macuahuitl (obsidian embedded in hardwood) are more than Good Enough? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 15:40

3 Answers 3


As a reality check was asked for and as you specifically want this to happen for a technology like that of the Mayans, I'd say impossible.

To manufacture this material (as your Wikipedia link explains) requires advanced technologies (ultrasonic homogenizers for example !) and these will be impossible to replace in a Mayan world.

Likewise the minimum energy requirements mentioned are of the order of 1 MW/hr per tonne produced. Coal would be the most likely fuel they could use (although wood would be an option), and typically in a modern high efficiency power station you'd get 1 MW/h with about 1000 lbs of coal - that's a lot. Now Mayans would have no way to reach those levels of efficiency so you could multiple that by a large factor. A typical early industrial revolution steam engine had an efficiency of as low as 1%, so multiply by a factor of a 50 (a modern power station might be 50% efficient) - maybe as much as 50,000 tonnes of coal would be required - this is far too much for such a civilization, IMO.

But even a low efficiency industrial revolution type steam engine would be beyond Mayan technology. It was not an accident it took until the late 1700's to reach this level of tech - it requires a lot of advances in parallel, including more advanced Iron technologies that they would not have.

So I think manufacturing the material is beyond the capability of Mayan technology.


Theoretically yes, you can make a melee weapon out of cheese if you want, but it wouldn't be very effective. In practice stone and wood weapons would be superior. The reason for this is weight, in a melee situation a heavy weapon cannot be parried by a lighter one if the opponents are of equal strength. The heavier weapon will smash straight through the guard and deal damage.

Apart from that there would be much less processing involved using materials readily available already.

These Polynesian hardwood weapons would be similar to Mayan weapons in usage, you cannot block these weapons with a broomstick or baseball bat, you need a heavy weapon to stop or deflect them. So you would be better served using your new tech to reinforce your armour where light weight is an advantage.

Polynesian weapons

  • $\begingroup$ It certainly is possible to parry a heavy weapon with a lighter one. Parrying, unlike blocking, re-directs the weapon's path so it misses you, and with luck leaves your opponent open to a reposte. Moreover, given combatants of equal strength, the lighter weapon will be faster. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf good luck with that, Mayans and polynesians didn't use smooth edged weapons, an attempt to parry is caught on the projections and the lighter weapon either ripped out of the persons hands or the parry fails miserably and fatally. Primitive !=stupid , I train with these weapons regularly. When using a shorter or lighter weapon I make no attempt to parry, I either dodge or throw, parrying will get me in serious trouble and these are not toys. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ The broader weapon is actually a weapon of peace, designed to allow someone to parry, cripple or disarm an opponent rather than just kill them, but it also has projections made specifically for breaking bones in case the opponent disagrees. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not going to argue, neither I nor the chaps I train with have read a manual, none exist. If you tried parrying with a dagger you'd end up dead, that's all there is to it. A sword expert in WW2 tried his sword against a Maori soldier serving with the ANZACS and lost. Feel free to juxtapose techniques for metal smooth edged weapons on hardwood and stone weapons and techniques you know nothing about and chat amongst yourselves somewhere else. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ @EnglishmanBob then it would make an excellent weapon material I would think, especially if you could control the weight precisely. Then you could have perfectly balanced weapons without worrying about dimensions $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 15:18

Useful melee weapon? Certainly. But you aren't going to get anything with the qualities of a sword or spear. When cast thin (as would be required for a blade), this stuff is bendy AF and would thus have a huge problem penetrating skin. However, the tensile strength quality has at least one benefit that might be of use as a weapon. If you had to kill someone with nanocellulose in a melee setting, I'd suggest either:

  1. Clumping it into a massive bludgeoning instrument.
  2. Embed silicon crystals into the matrix, craft a belt of nanocellulose and invent a power sander.
  • $\begingroup$ What if the weapon took advantage of the "bendy af" nature of the material? What about something that stored energy like a spring - a crossbow maybe? Or a whip? $\endgroup$
    – dwizum
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ Considering we can utilize the qualities of wood in general, sure. But it doesn't really take advantage of the nanocellulose nature. A branch could be just as good. $\endgroup$
    – Carduus
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 16:10

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