A new kind of wood-based degradable material with semi-structural strength could soon replace plastics used in home furnishings and construction materials. The Swedish researchers who developed the new composite material claim that it can be broken down without harming the environment, unlike conventional thermoplastics.
Making a material strong enough to replace the fossil-based materials used to manufacture products for home construction and furnishing, such as bathroom cabinets, doors, wall-boards and countertops is one of the main goals behind the development of renewable wood composites. In addition, these composites need to be sustainable, or circular.
“Degradability enables circularity,” says Peter Olsén, a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “By degrading the plastic, the fibers can be recycled and the chemical components from the plastic reused.”
The key to the strength of materials like fiberglass is their high-fiber content. However, it’s difficult to produce a degradable wood composite without intensive heat damage from processes like melt-compounding. In the paper published in Nature Communications, Olsén and fellow researchers at KTH report a novel way to deliver both high fiber content and degradability.
“No one has been able to make a degradable plastic with fiber content this high before, while having good dispersion and low fiber damage,” Olsén says. “This enabled the material properties to be improved dramatically compared to previous attempts.”
The researchers combined polymer chemistry with process technology similar to that used for carbon fiber composites as a way to achieve a higher fiber content needed.
“Everything is based on cheap and available raw materials”, Olsén says. The degradation products are also harmless to the environment, and can be reused, leading to what Olsén calls ‘a fully-circular product concept’.
“It invites recycling of wood fibers to enable reformation of the material,” he says.
But in order to move on to commercialization, Olsén disclosed that the formula needs to be optimized. “The key to the work is that it shows a new way of how we can create degradable biocomposites with high fiber content.”