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Scientists Say They Have Created An Environmentally Friendly Alternative To Styrofoam

Scientists at Washington State University have created a new type of foam derived from wood pulp they say has as much insulating power as Styrofoam.

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Styrofoam is a perfect example of a capitalist economy run amok. One of thousands of compounds derived from petroleum, it has many wonderful uses. It’s a wonderful insulator, which makes it ideal for coolers, coffee cups, and building insulation. It also has several drawbacks. It is non-biodegradable, releases toxic fumes when burned, and takes 500 years to breakdown.

styrofoam cup

Credit: CarbonNYC [in SF!] on / CC BY

It is slightly resilient, making it ideal for protecting things during shipping but that resiliency means it cannot be compacted when introduced into the waste materials stream. Some estimates suggest a third of the volume of all landfills is taken up by discarded styrofoam.

From an environmental perspective, styrofoam is a disaster. It is one of those products that imposes huge costs on society, costs that are borne by the community and not by the manufacturers who produce it. Just like the fossil fuel industry, profits are privatized while costs are socialized.

Now scientists at Washington State University say they have developed an environmentally friendly material derived from plants that works better than Styrofoam for insulation. The experimental foam is made primarily from nanocrystals of cellulose — the most abundant plant material on earth.

The manufacturing process uses water as a solvent instead of toxic solvents. It contain about 75% cellulose nanocrystals derived from wood pulp.  Polyvinyl alcohol bonds with the nanocellulose crystals and makes the resultant foams more elastic, according to a report in Science Daily. It also has a uniform cellular structure that makes it a good insulator. It is light yet can support up to 200 times its own weight without changing shape. It degrades well and burning it doesn’t produce toxic 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,” says professor Amir Ameli. “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.

Co-researcher professor Xaio Zhang says, “This is a fundamental demonstration of the potential of nanocrystalline cellulose as an important industrial material. 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.”

Yet another step in the process of ridding the world of the scourge of fossil fuels.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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