Environment

Popcorn used to create an eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene foam

Popcorn used to create an eco-...
Although it may look like a big Rice Krispies square, this is actually a sheet of building insulation made from the popcorn foam
Although it may look like a big Rice Krispies square, this is actually a sheet of building insulation made from the popcorn foam
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Although it may look like a big Rice Krispies square, this is actually a sheet of building insulation made from the popcorn foam
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Although it may look like a big Rice Krispies square, this is actually a sheet of building insulation made from the popcorn foam
The popcorn foam was used in the production of this molded wine bottle packaging
2/2
The popcorn foam was used in the production of this molded wine bottle packaging

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam is a problematic material, in that it's cheap and lightweight but also non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle. German scientists have developed a possible alternative, though – foam made out of popcorn.

Georg August University's Prof. Alireza Kharazipour first got the idea over 10 years ago, when he bought a bag of popcorn at a movie theater. Since then, his team has devised a method of using the stuff in an inexpensive, biodegradable, renewable-source, EPS-alternative foam.

The production process begins by mechanically shredding maize grains into granules, then using pressurized steam to expand (or "pop") them. Next, a plant-protein-derived bonding agent is mixed in with the expanded granules, after which the mixture is pressed into a mold. Once the bonding agent has cured, the resulting sheet, block or other item is removed from the mold and is ready for use.

The popcorn foam was used in the production of this molded wine bottle packaging
The popcorn foam was used in the production of this molded wine bottle packaging

According to the university, the foam absorbs heat better than EPS, it is much less flammable, and it can be composted, shredded for reuse, used to produce biogas, or even utilized as animal feed once discarded (and no, there's no word on whether or not people can eat it). Additionally, along with the maize kernels, corn industry waste such as broken cobs can be utilized in its production.

The technology has recently been licensed to Germany's Bachl Group, which will be commercializing it for use in building insulation. Other possible applications for the material include protective/insulating packaging, sports equipment components and lightweight automotive parts.

"I think this is my contribution as a scientist for a clean environment, free of plastic-based products," says Kharazipour.

Source: Georg August University

12 comments
12 comments
TechGazer
One problem is that it's competing with food production. Do you use the land and fertilizers and water and herbicides/pesticides etc, to produce food, or to produce disposable food packaging? There are probably several plant or algae or fungal species that can grow quickly on non-agricultural land which would be suitable as 'puffy bits' to bind together.

If the equipment investment isn't too high and there's a suitable supply of waste popcorn (movie theatres?), it might be profitable for a small business to supply local customers with custom insulated storage forms.
paul314
I hope that's not building insulation anywhere that rodents or insects live. Or does it get laced with some kind of poison to protect it? (I once saw the walls of a walk-in cooler that had been almost entirely transformed to habitat by rats.)
niio
Isn't the most critical factor in any insulation product its ability to actually insulate? Nowhere is this quantified, and "absorbing heat" does not sound like a good thing for insulation to do. Packaging certainly does not care about this but the only licensing arrangement mentioned was for insulation.
Spud Murphy
Some suppliers have used plain popcorn instead of packing peanuts for years. It is an ideal replacement, surprised no-one had worked on this before. Unfortunately, because EPS is so dirt cheap, any replacement has to be similarly priced because, you know, "it's a few cents more, that will eat into profits"...
EH
At least add some boric acid to keep the insects from munching it, maybe some warfarin, too, to stop rodents. It does look like it could be a good core for structural insulated panels (SIPs), but the other problem with it is that, unlike Styrofoam, it isn't water resistant. It will swell like mad if it gets wet. Then it will be ideal culture medium for mold and fungus, unless it's dosed with something toxic.

Maybe carbonize it? That could be aerospace-grade core material.
Robert Kowalski
Sounds like good packaging material. So much cardboard boxes fillers gets thrown away moment device they were protecting is out.
Rustgecko
Population heading north of 9 billion, and they're converting food to a building material. Great ethics.
windykites
I have often wondered why they don't melt down waste EPS. Or dissolve it to reduce volume.
Puffed rice might be a cheaper product than pop corn. and probably lighter as well.
MarylandUSA
I recall reading, I think in the 1980s, about a girl who had won a science fair for creating an automobile bumper filled with popcorn.
DaveWesely
@TechGazer & Rustgecko 30% of corn production is used for ethanol (biofuel additive for gasoline). As fossil fuel use drops, so will ethanol market. Corn commodity prices will drop below cost of production. Farmers will go bankrupt and we will have more FarmAID concerts. But hey, don't use corn for packing materials, it might use 0.1% of the supply./s
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