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WSU researchers develop eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam insulation

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Researchers at Washington State University have developed a plant-based material that for the first time outperforms Styrofoam for insulation. Additionally, they developed a simple, environmentally-friendly manufacturing process to make the foam using water as a solvent instead of other harmful solvents.

WSU said 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 are also contemplating how to move from a laboratory to a real-world manufacturing scale.

One of the researchers, Amir Ameli, assistant professor at the university’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, said they 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.”  (The foam is mostly made from nanocrystals of cellulose, the most abundant plant material on earth.)

The results demonstrate the potential of renewable materials for high-performance thermal insulation materials “that can contribute to energy savings, less usage of petroleum-based materials, and reduction of adverse environmental impacts,” Ameli stated.

Co-researcher Xiao Zhang, associate professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, described their work as a fundamental demonstration of the potential of nanocrystalline cellulose as an important industrial material. Noting the promising material has many desirable properties, Zhang said “To be able to transfer these properties to a bulk scale for the first time through this engineered approach is very exciting.”

“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,” Zhang remarked. Among its advantages, the WSU product is very lightweight and can support up to 200 times its weight without changing shape.

Polystyrene foam, known under the trademarked name Styrofoam, is made from petroleum. The toxic ingredients do not degrade naturally and create pollution when burned.

The professors’ work is published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers and was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU’s Office of Commercialization.

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