A newer, greener Styrofoam

Researchers at Washington State University have developed a plant-based, environmentally-friendly Styrofoam alternative made from cellulose nanocrystals.

Researchers at Washington State University have developed an environmentally friendly, plant-based alternative for Styrofoam that, by some metrics, outperforms its petroleum-based counterpart.

The new foam is composed mostly of nanocrystals made from the plant material cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on Earth.

Cellulose is an important component in the cell walls of green plants and has a number of applications — about 90 percent of cotton fiber is cellulose.

Amir Ameli, an assistant professor with WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering who helped lead the research, said scientists have been working to replace Styrofoam with more sustainable alternatives for years but have had trouble creating a product that performs as well as the original.

“Plastic-based foams have been out in the market for decades, so there’s a lot of research and development going toward basically modifying them and trying to make them work better,” Ameli said. “New alternatives, (made with) different resources, especially the bio-based resources, is pretty new so that’s why, in terms of the performance comparison, it’s been quite challenging.”

Researchers have produced cellulose-based foams in the past, Ameli said but the new material is a better insulator than Styrofoam — a first for such products. He said, other properties of the new material — like its ability to support as much as 200 times its own weight without changing shape — are competitive with low-grade polystyrene foams. While the new foam still includes a small amount of petroleum-based plastic, he said major advantages of the product is that it degrades relatively well and does not create toxic ash when burned.

“From the health perspective and from the biodegradability perspective, it’s much, much better than polystyrene — of course, we haven’t done a systematic biodegradation study yet,” Ameli said. “We’re not replacing 100 percent of the petroleum-based plastic, we’re replacing, let’s say 80 percent of it in the final product, which I think is still quite significant if we can scale it.”

While WSU’s work has developed a simple, environmentally friendly manufacturing process to produce the material, it remains to be seen if that can be replicated on a commercial scale. Polystyrene producers who wish to convert would have to adopt an entirely new fabrication process, he said.

“From the research and development side, we still have, I think, a lot more work to do — of course, one thing would be how far we can decrease the petroleum-based component,” Ameli said. “Besides that, we are also working on other alternative formulations that further enhances the performance, especially the mechanical properties so that we can consider other applications too.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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