SRUC researches packaging value of wood and hemp

With an increase in online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, the development of alternative sustainable packaging has never been more important. However currently more than 95% of the foams, including polyurethane (PU) and polystyrene (PS), are made from petrochemicals - which release up to five times their mass in atmospheric CO2 during manufacturing.

Researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Riga Technical University (RTU) in Latvia, have found that waste materials from wood and hemp biomass can be processed into sustainable foams for use in packaging, cushions and insulation.

Hemp and wood fibres were used to make sustainable foam for packaging, cushions and insulation.

Unlike foams sourced from petrochemicals, biomass-derived foams can significantly capture and sequester atmospheric CO2. In addition, the biorenewable and biodegradable foams promise both high performance and sustainability.

The researchers used an economic process of microfluidic processing and freeze-drying to create nanocellulose (NC) foams from wood and hemp fibres.

They found that while both types of NC foams showed great mechanical response, porosity, thermal conductivity and thermal degradation, those made from hemp demonstrated higher performance characteristics.

While other bio-based products have yet to be commercialised at scale due to high cost and low quality, this research has the potential to change the synthetic foam industry through the commercialisation of high-performance biodegradable materials – creating new jobs and addressing the key issue of synthetic polymers and plastics polluting the planet at the same time.

Vijay Kumar Thakur, Professor in New Products from Biomass at SRUC, said: “Our society is comprehensively dependent on the use of plastics that are derived from petroleum feedstocks. Because of growing environmental concerns contiguous to plastic waste pollution and recycling problems, it is becoming ever imperative to look for nature-based resources wherever possible.

“Indeed, pollution and climate change have become some of the most prominent and impactful threats that we will have to face in our lifetime. What we manufacture, buy and consume will affect many generations after us.

“With the current challenges we are facing in terms of material resources and pollution, there is an urgent need for more realistic ecological bio-based alternatives.”

The research, which was funded by the Latvian Council of Science, is published in Industrial Crops and Products.