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article imageResearchers have developed an alternative for Styrofoam

By Karen Graham     May 11, 2019 in Technology
Washington State University researchers have developed an environmentally-friendly, plant-based material that for the first time works better than Styrofoam for insulation.
In the United States, Maine became the first state to sign into law legislation banning the use of polyvinyl or as they are commonly called Styrofoam containers. Maryland is set to become the second state to ban the products in an effort to save our environment.
Like plastics, also made from petroleum - polystyrene cannot be recycled like a lot of other products. Maine Governor Janet Mills says, "In fact, it will be around for decades to come and eventually it will break down into particles, polluting our environment, hurting our wildlife, and even detrimentally impacting our economy.”
Efforts to create environmentally friendly, sustainable and high-performance thermal insulators to replace polystyrene foam products has been ongoing for a number of years. The popular material is used in everything from coffee cups to materials for building and construction, transportation, and packaging industries.
nanocellulose in a cup
nanocellulose in a cup
Even though researchers have developed plant or cellulose-based foams to replace polystyrene foams, the plant-based versions haven't performed as well as Styrofoam in keeping a cup of coffee hot. This problem has apparently been overcome by researchers at Washington State University.
The research and development of the cellulose-based foam was 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, is published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers.
The foam is made from nanocrystals of cellulose, the most abundant plant material on Earth. Perhaps even more remarkable was that the researchers also developed an environmentally friendly and simple manufacturing process to make the foam, using water as a solvent instead of other harmful solvents, like sulfuric acid.
In addition to the ban on a dozen kinds of disposable plastic products  such as straws  cutlery and ...
In addition to the ban on a dozen kinds of disposable plastic products, such as straws, cutlery and cotton buds, the EU will encourage member states to reduce the use of plastic packaging and introduce stricter labelling rules
Patrick Pleul, dpa/AFP/File
The WSU researchers made their material using 75 percent cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp, 7.5 percent polyvinyl alcohol, and a crosslinking agent. The actual fabrication process uses only water. The polyvinyl alcohol bonds with the nanocellulose crystals and makes the resultant foam more elastic.
The resulting material was found to have a uniform cellular structure - making it an excellent insulator. It was also very lightweight and strong, being capable of supporting 200 times its weight without changing shape. It also degrades well and when burned, does not release 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," 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."
Now, the researchers are looking to transfer the material's properties into the bulk scale, and are also looking at developing formulations for stronger and more durable materials for practical applications.
More about Nanocrystalline cellulose, Thermal insulation, Ultralight, Foam, Polyvinyl alcohol
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