Styrofoam is not eco-friendly stuff. It’s made from petroleum, it can’t be efficiently recycled, it’s non-biodegradable, and it creates pollution when burned. A new plant-based foam reportedly has none of those drawbacks, however, plus it’s claimed to actually insulate better than regular Styrofoam.

Developed by scientists at Washington State University, the experimental foam consists of about 75 percent cellulose nanocrystals. Not only is it said to surpass the insulating capabilities of petroleum-based foam, but it can also support 200 times its own weight without deforming, it degrades thoroughly, and it doesn’t produce ash when incinerated.

To produce it, the researchers started by utilizing a process known as acid hydrolysis. This cleaved chemical bonds within cellulose derived from wood pulp, converting it into the nanocrystals. Polyvinyl alcohol was then added to those crystals, bonding with them to create an elastic, uniformly-structured foam.

And while other groups have previously created cellulose-based foams of their own, Washington State claims that those materials don’t insulate as well as its does, plus they degrade at high temperatures or in humid environments.

“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 co-lead scientist Asst. Prof. 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.”

The team is now looking at scaling the production process up to an industrial level, utilizing inexpensive feedstocks to create a “commercially viable product.”

A paper on the research, which was co-led by Assoc. Prof. Xiao Zhang, was recently published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers.

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