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Wood-based degradable plastic: the future of sustainable home construction

Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have developed a new type of wood-based degradable plastic with semi-structural strength.

A groundbreaking discovery has been made by researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who have developed a new type of wood-based degradable plastic with semi-structural strength. This innovative material has the potential to replace conventional plastics used in home furnishings and construction materials, offering a more environmentally friendly alternative. Unlike thermoplastics, the material can be broken down without causing harm to the environment.

The importance of degradability for a circular economy

The development of renewable wood composites has been driven by the need for materials with sufficient strength to replace fossil-based materials in home construction and furnishing. Examples include bathroom cabinets, doors, wallboards, and countertops. Sustainability and circularity are of paramount importance in this quest.

“Degradability enables circularity,” explains Peter Olsén, a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. By degrading the plastic, the fibres can be recycled and the chemical components from the plastic reused, thereby reducing waste and conserving resources.

The secret to high fibre content and degradability

High fibre content is crucial for the strength of materials such as fibreglass. However, producing a degradable wood composite without causing extensive heat damage through processes like melt-compounding has been a challenge. Olsén and his fellow researchers at KTH have now discovered a method to achieve both high fibre content and degradability.

“No one has been able to make a degradable plastic with fibre content this high before, while having good dispersion and low fibre damage,” Olsén says. “This enabled the material properties to be improved dramatically compared to previous attempts.”

To attain higher fibre content, the researchers combined polymer chemistry with process technology similar to that used for carbon fibre composites. The materials used are affordable and readily available, and the degradation products pose no threat to the environment. This paves the way for what Olsén describes as “a fully-circular product concept.”

Benefits and the path to commercialisation

The wood-based degradable plastic could actually contribute to saving trees for activities such as building at Sunshine Coast, as it encourages the recycling of wood fibres to enable the reformation of the material. However, before this revolutionary material can be commercialised, the formula must be optimised.

“The key to the work is that it shows a new way of how we can create degradable biocomposites with high fibre content,” Olsén asserts. The potential applications of this material are vast, and its use could bring about a significant change in the construction and home furnishing industries, including among builders at the Sunshine Coast.

The findings of this groundbreaking research were published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature Communications. Funding for the research was provided by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (grant FID15-0115 TL and LAB), the KAW Biocomposites project (grant 2018.0451 LAB), and Formas – a Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Re-Design Plastic, 2020-01696 PO).

In summary, the development of this wood-based degradable plastic with semi-structural strength is a pioneering step towards a more sustainable and circular economy in the construction and home furnishing sectors. As researchers continue to refine the formula, the potential benefits of this material could revolutionise these industries and significantly reduce the environmental impact of traditional plastics.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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