Researchers Say New Styrofoam-Like Product Is Better for Nature, Insulation

Researchers at Washington State University are developing a plant-based alternative to plastic foam products like Styrofoam that they claim is more environmentally-friendly and works better as insulation.

Criticized for its impact on the environment, plastic foam is nevertheless used in a wide variety of products. Manufacturers use Styrofoam-type materials, for instance, to make coffee cups, packing peanuts, and building insulation. Researchers have attempted to create a “greener” alternative to plastic foam but have so far struggled to replicate its insulation properties and strength.

But WSU researchers say they may have a solution. While the scientists still have some kinks to work out, they say their cellulose-based product could be a viable alternative to plastic foam.

Styrofoam, which is a trademarked material created by Dow Chemical, and similar products are useful but environmentally problematic. The petroleum-based material contains toxic ingredients, produces pollution when burned, and doesn’t degrade naturally.

The alternative product being developed by WSU researchers, on the other hand, consists mainly of cellulose derived from wood pulp. The process to make it is reportedly non-toxic and relatively simple. The foam product also degrades quickly and doesn’t release harmful gases when burned.

Besides being friendlier to the environment, though, this new foam may also be useful for consumer goods. According to Science Daily, the WSU researchers say their foam not only works better as an insulator than Styrofroam but also that it supports 200 times its weight without changing shape.

“Our results demonstrate the potential of renewable materials, such as nanocellulose, for high-performance thermal insulation materials,” notes Amir Ameli, a mechanical engineer who is a lead researcher on the project. “[Renewable insulation materials] can contribute to energy savings, less usage of petroleum-based materials, and reduction of adverse environmental impacts.”

The WSU researchers are now working on ways to turn their plastic-foam alternative into a commercially viable product. They are reportedly attempting to make the product stronger and more durable, besides figuring out ways to incorporate cheaper feedstocks and produce the product on an industrial scale.  

Image courtesy of WSU Insider.

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