May 23, 2019 | Updated: 11:35 AM EDT

Scientists Develop Environmental Friendly Nanocellulose-Based Styrofoam

May 12, 2019 10:59 AM EDT

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Styrofoam
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Engineers from Washington State University have developed a replacement for Styrofoam. The material is plant-based and is environmetnally-friendly. 

Nanocrystals of cellulose comprise the foam. Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on earth. The foam can be produced through a simple and environmentally-friendly process with the use of water instead of other chemicals as solvents. The findings of the study have been published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers.

The team is led by Amir Ameli, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and Xiao Zhang, associate professor in the Gene and Linda School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

Petroleum-based styrofoam is the material used in building and construction, coffee cups, transportation, and packaging industries. However, it uses toxic ingredients as its raw material, needs to be degraded in an artificial manner, uses petroleum, and produces toxic gases when burned. 

Other scientists exerted effort in other cellulose-based foams. However, their performance is not at par with Styforoam.

"In their work, the WSU 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 nanocellulose 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. 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," according to Nanowerk

"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," Ameli said. "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."

"This is a fundamental demonstration of the potential of nanocrystalline cellulose as an important industrial material," Zhang said. "This promising material has many desirable properties, and to be able to transfer these properties to a bulk scale for the first time through this engineered approach is very exciting."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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