Plant-based alternative to Styrofoam developed for insulation — does it even better

In a first, researchers found that the plant-based styrofoam surpassed the insulation capability of Styrofoam.

In a first, scientists have developed an environmentally-friendly, plant-based material that works better than Styrofoam for insulation.

The foam is mostly made from nanocrystals of cellulose, the most abundant plant material on earth.

The researchers from Washington State University in the US also developed an environmentally friendly and simple manufacturing process to make the foam, using water as a solvent instead of other harmful solvents.

Researchers have been working to develop an environmentally friendly replacement for polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam.

The popular material, made from petroleum, is used in everything from coffee cups to materials for building and construction, transportation, and packaging industries.

However, it is made from toxic ingredients, depends on petroleum, doesn't degrade naturally, and creates pollution when it burns.

Plant-based alternative to Styrofoam developed for insulation — does it even better

Pellets of styrofoam.

While other researchers have created other cellulose-based foams, the plant-based versions have not performed as well as Styrofoam.

They are not as strong, don't insulate as well, and degraded at higher temperatures and in humidity. To make cellulose nanocrystals, researchers use acid hydrolysis, in which acid is used to cleave chemical bonds.

The team created a material that is made of about 75 percent cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp. They added polyvinyl alcohol, another polymer that bonds with the nano-cellulose crystals and makes the resultant foams more elastic.

The material that they created contains a uniform cellular structure that means it is a good insulator. For the first time, the researchers report, the plant-based material surpassed the insulation capabilities of Styrofoam.

Plant based styrofoam. Image: Veolia

Representational image. Image: Veolia

It is also very lightweight and can support up to 200 times its weight without changing shape. It degrades well, and burning it doesn't produce polluting ash.

"We have used an easy method to make high-performance, composite foams based on nanocrystalline cellulose with an excellent combination of thermal insulation capability and mechanical properties," said Amir Ameli, assistant professor at WSU.

"Our results demonstrate the potential of renewable materials, such as nanocellulose, for high-performance thermal insulation materials that can contribute to energy savings, less usage of petroleum-based materials, and reduction of adverse environmental impacts," said Ameli.

The researchers are now developing formulations for stronger and more durable materials for practical applications. They are interested in incorporating low-cost feedstocks to make a commercially viable product and considering how to move from laboratory to a real-world manufacturing scale.

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