WSU researchers develop environmentally friendly alternative to styrofoam

RICHLAND, WA - Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities are working on creating an alternative for Styrofoam made from trees that's more environmentally friendly.

Styrofoam is used in everything from coffee cups to materials for building and construction, but it's made from toxic ingredients and creates pollution when it burns.

This new foam is mostly made from nanocrystals of cellulose, the most abundant plant material on earth.

The advantages of cellulose is that it's renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Even creating this foam is environmentally friendly, because instead of using harmful chemicals, the researchers are using water.

The problem with other cellulose-based foams is that the end result still isn't as strong as Styrofoam; it doesn't insulate well and will break down when it's really hot and humid.

"The challenge is figuring out how to transfer properties, particularly the mechanical properties to this foam," says Xiao Zhang, Associate Professor at the Gene and Linda School of Chemical Engineering and Bio-engineering. 

But at WSU they found a way to overcome these challenges. Here the foam is made 75% from wood pulp. This material is a good insulator, even surpassing the capabilities of typical Styrofoam. It's also lightweight, can support up to 200 times its weight,  degrades well and won't produce pollution if burned. 

"Cellulose from trees is very strong; literature papers show it's stronger than steel," says Professor Zhang. "If you look at trees, there's no man-made -  architecture can't compete with that." 

With the environmental problems facing our planet, Professor Zhang believes this research will play a part in helping to alleviate those issues.

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