Wood-based plastic enables furniture and building materials

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KTH researcher Peter Olsén shows a sample of a new degradable wood-based plastic. “These new materials, due to their high fiber content and degradable matrix, could be a game-changer for a future circular material economy,” he says. (Photo: courtesy of Peter Olsén)

wood-basedWood-based plastic enables furniture and building materials: Plastics used in furniture and building materials could be replaced by a new type of degradable wood-based plastic with semi-structural strength. Unlike thermoplastic, the material can be broken down without harming the environment, KTH researchers reported.

One of the goals of developing renewable wood composites is to make materials strong enough to replace fossil materials used in building and furnishing homes, such as bathroom cabinets, doors, wall panels and work plans. And it has to be sustainable, or circular.

“Degradability enables circularity,” says peter olsen, researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “By breaking down the plastic, the fibers can be recycled and the chemical constituents of the plastic reused.”

High fiber content is key to the strength of materials like fiberglass, but it is difficult to provide a degradable wood composite without extensive thermal damage caused by processes such as melt-mixing.

Olsén and his fellow KTH researchers report that they have found a way to offer both high fiber content and degradability.

“No one has been able to make a degradable plastic with such a high fiber content before, while having good dispersion and low fiber damage,” says Olsén. “This has significantly improved the properties of the material compared to previous attempts.”

In order to achieve higher fiber content, researchers combined polymer chemistry with process technology similar to that used for carbon fiber composites.

Everything is based on cheap and available raw materials, says Olsén. The degradation products are also harmless to the environment and can be reused, enabling what Olsén calls “a fully circular product concept”.

And it could actually save trees. “It invites the recycling of wood fibers to enable the reformation of the material,” he says.

But to move to commercialization, Olsén says the formula needs to be optimized. “The key to the work is that it shows a new way to create high-fiber, degradable biocomposites,” he says.

Their findings were recently reported in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The research was supported by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (grant FID15-0115 TL and LAB), the KAW Biocomposites Project (grant 2018.0451 LAB) and funding from Formas – a Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Re- Design Plastic, 2020-01696 PO).

David Callahan

Publication:

Highly Reinforced and Degradable Lignocellulosic Biocomposites by Polymerization of Novel Polyester Oligomers, Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-33283-z

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