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Lightweight Eco-composites Based on Renewable Raw Materials

 


HGCA PROJECT REPORT 453

Lightweight Eco-composites Based on Renewable Raw Materials


by
Prof. Jim Song

Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH

July 2009

Abstract

The aim of the project was to develop novel technologies for industrial production of lightweight eco-composites applicable in many industrial sectors. Wheat flour foam eco-composites are renewable and natural materials which are more sustainable than oil-based plastics. They can be made fully biodegradable and compostable which facilitates waste management by composting and helps reduce waste sent to landfill. A further environmental benefit of using wheat-based eco-composites is that the processing technologies utilise water as both blowing and bonding agents. This prevents the emission of hazardous chemicals that are currently used to manufacture oil-based polymer foams. 

Wheat flour-based lightweight eco-composites have good mechanical, thermal insulation and sound barrier properties which may also be improved by: 1) using appropriate additives during extrusion foaming; 2) applying different coatings; 3) lamination of the foams with other renewable materials. Case studies demonstrated the potential of the materials for many applications in construction, packaging and consumer goods sectors including:

• Cool box thermal insulation panels for shipping chilled foods, beverages and pharmaceutical products without using refrigerated vehicles.
• Display boards for exhibitions.
• Cushioning planks/blocks and wrapping sheets in protective packaging.
• Antistatic packaging for electronic products.
• Fugitive foam for void creation in novel cast concrete structures.

In addition, wheat-based foams can be utilised in durable construction applications such as ceiling and partition panels for sound and thermal insulation. These applications require resistance to fire, mould growth and insect attack. The consortium developed a range of treatments suitable for modifying the properties of wheat-based foams used for the above construction applications.

A life cycle analysis study demonstrated the environmental impact of wheat-based foam materials compared with oil-based foams. The results indicated that wheat-based foams have a lower global warming potential than oil-based polymer foams.

By scaling up a novel processing line, the foam manufacturer established preliminary industrial production capacity of the wheat-based foams. In addition, a test-of-market trial of chilled food thermal packaging was successfully carried out.

Currently, wheat-based foams represent over 25% of the loosefill packaging market in the UK. The consortium anticipated that within five years, wheat-based foams will capture 15-25% of the UK plastic packaging and thermal insulation foam markets (worth approximately £50 and £70 million per annum, respectively). This will provide a significant increase in the use of wheat as an industrial feedstock.

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