A university research team has found a rather unique material that has turned out to be an effective, environmentally friendly and easily recyclable base for insulation supplies: Popcorn.
A research team based at Göttingen University has developed a novel process that creates insulation boards made of granulated popcorn that has effective insulation properties as well as protecting against fire, improving its potential as an insulation source against petroleum-based products.
The majority of the most common insulation materials, such as polystyrene, polyurethane foam and fibreglass, are made from plastics and other petroleum products, which are exceptionally difficult if not impossible to recycle.
Whilst in some cases it can be reclaimed or turned into ceiling tiles or in some cases concrete blocks, in other cases the insulation can become contaminated by the other materials in the wall and thus is destined for landfill.
Due to the nature of insulation, it has also been linked to pollution on waterways with an implication on human health.
As these are plastics, they do not decompose, meaning that they are destined to remain in landfills.
There do exist more natural and environmentally friendly alternatives, such as sheep’s wool, cotton, straw and hemp, but require somewhat specialist processes to be used for insulation, given the material’s flammability risk.
As well as this, natural materials tend to be more expensive and cannot always be produced at the scale needed to make the switch away from plastic materials that historically have been more effective, making eco-friendly insulation a niche product by comparison.
Professor Alireza Kharizipour, part of the University’s research team, believes that using popcorn can change this, as it can be produced at an industrial scale using a cost-effective process based on the one used to make fibreglass insulation boards.
This, alongside the effective water-repellent properties of the new board and the ease in which they can be recycled, could take eco-friendly insulation into the mainstream at a time when the construction industry as a whole is rethinking every element of its workflow.
Embodied carbon, the measure of the carbon dioxide emitted by a building material during its entire lifecycle from the extraction of raw materials to the demolition of the building, has increasingly become a standard metric that construction firms have explored.
Plans are in place in Tokyo to make a skyscraper made of wood, heating systems are moving away from natural gas towards hydrogen and low-energy heat pumps, and other natural and recycled building material projects have been constructed.
Popcorn itself has been linked to a range of alternate uses outside of the cinema. ‘Abocorn’ is a packaging material that takes advantage of the food’s similarity to polystyrene, and it has also been used to create chipboard that has half the weight.
Other eco-friendly materials have been explored as well, such as mycelium, a combination of organic waste, fungal spores and hemp, as a material that provides effective thermal properties.
The popcorn-based insulation has led to a licencing agreement between the university and the German insulation firm Bachl, who claimed that it was a major milestone towards them becoming a multi-material supplier.