Researchers Create Environmentally-Friendly Alternative To Styrofoam

Everywhere you look, there is an epidemic of environmentally unfriendly plastic products littering the planet. One of those plastics is called polystyrene.

Polystyrene which is more commonly known by its brand name Styrofoam is a hard, foam-like plastic commonly used in shipping fragile products or food packaging.

Like other types of single-use plastic packaging, it can take 500 years or more for polystyrene to break down if exposed to the elements.

Anyone who’s ever come into contact with polystyrene foam knows that it tends to break apart easily and can float off into the environment with just a light breeze. But researchers at Washington State University may have an eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene.

The Styrofoam alternative is made from nanocrystals of cellulose, which is a type of common plant material.

And unlike polystyrene, which is made using harmful solvents, this cellulose-based foam is made using water as a solvent, making it considerably more eco friendly.

Research, lead by Xiao Zhang, associate professor in the Gene and Linda School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and Amir Ameli, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering sought to find a viable alternative to polystyrene foam that was easier on the environment.

This is not the first successful attempt at making cellulose-based plastic foam, but previously, researchers were unable to make it as durable as polystyrene foam. Other cellulose-based plastic foams have broken down too easily, degraded only in high temperature and humidity environments, and didn’t insulate as well as polystyrene.

The material created by the WSU researchers is 75% cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp sources. To create the foam, they add polyvinyl alcohol, which is a polymer that bonds with nanocellulose crystals. This binding action creates a more flexible and insulating material.

Researchers say that this plant-based material is as good or better than Styrofoam.

“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.”

“This is a fundamental demonstration of the potential of nanocrystalline cellulose as an important industrial material,” Zhang said. “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 and Ameli’s work is published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers. Their work was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU’s Office of Commercialization.

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