Tag Archives: styrofoam

Credit: Washington State University.

Scientists develop plant-based, environmentally-friendly alternative to Styrofoam

Researchers have developed a plant-based material that has better insulating properties than Styrofoam and can support up to 200 times its own weight without changing shape. Styrofoam is a widely used constructions material which is made out of toxic ingredients, requires petroleum for its manufacturing, and pollutes the environment when burnt.

Credit: Washington State University.

Credit: Washington State University.

For some time, Amir Ameli and Xiao Zhang of Washington State University have been investigating a more environmentally-friendly alternative to polystyrene foam, widely known under the brand name Styrofoam. After many trials and errors, the researchers settled on a foam that is mostly made from cellulose nanocrystals and which uses water as a solvent in the manufacturing process rather than harmful solvents.

This isn’t the first time someone has made a styrofoam-like material from plant-based matter. However, previous versions weren’t nearly as reliable as styrofoam as they lacked in strength, insulating abilities, and resilience to temperature and humidity.

The new material is made from about 75% cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp, which was combined with polyvinyl alcohol — a polymer that bonds with the nanocellulose crystals to make the foam more elastic. The cellulose crystals themselves were made using acid hydrolysis, a chemical process that involves a non-toxic acid that cleaves chemical bonds.

The resulting material has a uniform cellular structure, making it an excellent insulator. It is very lightweight being able to support up to 200 times its own weight without altering its shape. When it is burned, it does not produce toxic and polluting ash.

“We have used an easy method to make high-performance, composite foams based on nanocrystalline cellulose with an excellent combination of thermal insulation capability and mechanical properties,” Ameli said. “Our results demonstrate the potential of renewable materials, such as nanocellulose, for high‑performance thermal insulation materials that can contribute to energy savings, less usage of petroleum-based materials, and reduction of adverse environmental impacts.”

In the future, the researchers want to scale their manufacturing process so it is commercially viable. Hopefully, it won’t take too long until this promising material moves from the lab to the real world.

“This is a fundamental demonstration of the potential of nanocrystalline cellulose as an important industrial material,” Zhang said. “This promising material has many desirable properties, and to be able to transfer these properties to a bulk scale for the first time through this engineered approach is very exciting.”

The findings were published in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers.

Artist impression of KELT-11b, a 'styrofoam'-density exoplanet orbiting a bright star in the southern hemisphere. Credit; Walter Robinson/Lehigh University.

Puffy exoplanet is as dense as styrofoam. The unusual find could help find habitable alien planets

Astronomers were looking for alien gas giants around bright stars when they suddenly came across an unusual find: a hyper-inflated planet. Orbiting around the brightest star in the Souther Hemisphere known to host a transiting planet is one of the ‘puffiest’ planets in the universe. Though nearly 40% bigger than Jupiter, it’s only a fifth as massive as our backyard gas giant. That puts it at a density nearing styrofoam — incidentally, the stuff school children often use to build model solar systems.  Beyond the sheer ‘wow’ factor, this research might lead to opportunities that test the atmospheres of faraway planets and look for signs of life.

Artist impression of KELT-11b, a 'styrofoam'-density exoplanet orbiting a bright star in the southern hemisphere. Credit; Walter Robinson/Lehigh University.

Artist impression of KELT-11b, a ‘styrofoam’-density exoplanet orbiting a bright star in the southern hemisphere. Credit; Walter Robinson/Lehigh University.

The ‘styrofoam planet’ orbits KELT-11, the sixth brightest transit star discovered so far. KELT-11 — located some 320 light-years away– lives fast, though. In only a hundred million years, the star will run out of fuel and turn into a red giant, engulfing our adorable styrofoam planet called KELT-11b. Already, KELT-11b is dangerously close to its parent star traveling in an orbit that lasts less than five days.

‘Extraordinarily inflated’

The system was named in honor of the astronomical survey responsible for the discovery, the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope or KELT for short. It’s made up of two telescopes, one in Arizona and the other in South Africa, that collectively scan the night’s sky for about five million stars. The astronomers who operate KELT, among them more than three dozen collaborators from Vanderbilt University, Ohio State, and the South African Astronomical Observatory to name a few, look for stars that seem to dim slightly at regular intervals. This behaviour indicates a planet must be orbiting a parent a star, momentarily eclipsing the star as it passes between it and Earth. The dimming or ‘transit’ is verified by measuring the gravitational ‘wobble’ (a slight tug a planet exerts on the parent star).

Most of the planets outside the solar system, something which scientists call ‘exoplanets’, orbit around faint stars which makes measuring their properties difficult. Unlike other exoplanet-hunting instruments like Kepler, the KELT survey is specifically designed and tasked with finding valuable planets orbiting around very bright stars.

Though the team led by Joshua Pepper, astronomer and assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University, was setting out to find gas giants in bright star systems, no one expected to come across such a low mass, large planet like KELT-11b.

It’s still not clear what might have caused KELT-11b to be so inflated — about twice as big as scientists can explain. Pepper and colleagues hope to learn more once powerful telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer, and hopefully the James Webb Space Telescope, will try to peer through KELT-11b’s atmosphere. The fact that the puffy exoplanet’s atmosphere is so big, however, will provide a good opportunity to develop novel techniques meant to identify chemicals in the atmosphere. Ultimately, such measurement techniques might assess the habitability of certain planets, the authors reported in The Astronomical Journal.

“We don’t know of any real Earthlike planets or stars for which we can measure their atmospheres, though we expect to discover more in future years,” Pepper said in a statement. “These (giant gas) planets are the gold standards or testbeds for learning how to measure the atmospheres of planets.”

Why Banning Styrofoam Will Improve the Environment

Imagine I’m walking on the beach. I’m feeling the sand between my toes, gazing at the beautiful sunset on the horizon and thinking about how good that ocean water will feel on my skin. Then, the moment ends rudely.

Styrofoam lunchbox washes up on a beach in Mexico. Image credits: Wonderlane.

What is ruining this idyllic scene? A Styrofoam cup? A piece of a Styrofoam container? A cluster of tiny white balls that I’ve mistaken for something natural? No, it’s just Styrofoam. (Styrofoam is a brand name for polystyrene or expanded polystyrene foam.)

Whether Styrofoam ends up on our beaches as litter left by careless beachgoers or as litter washed ashore by ocean currents, Styrofoam is here to stay unless we ban its use worldwide.

Styrofoam’s Durability Is Bad for the Environment and for Humans

Although the ecological and human health risks of Styrofoam are yet to be quantified, there are many reasons to ban Styrofoam from our lives forever. The best reason is this substance lasts forever. Styrofoam never completely degrades; it just continues to cycle through our environment ruining our ecosystems and our health.

The Better Caribbean Program, based in Barbados, works to influence global and local businesses in the Caribbean to avoid the use of Styrofoam.

Styrofoam mountain in Tokyo. Image credits: David Gilford.

Why Styrofoam is bad for the environment

This list of reasons adapted from Clean Water Action, a California environmental groups, emphasizes the relevance of eliminating Styrofoam from our lives:

  • There are alternatives to Styrofoam. For example, we could use reusable containers made of recyclable/recycled plastic or glass. Other options include biodegradable or compostable materials and containers, eco-friendly packaging, and wrap made from sugarcane, corn, and other plant-based materials.
  • Long-term exposure to styrene can cause headaches, depression, fatigue, physical weakness and hearing loss.
  • Styrene can increase levels of fatigue and decrease the ability to concentrate.
  • Styrene disrupts normal hormone functions, resulting in thyroid problems and other hormone- related problems.
  • Styrofoam takes 500 years to break down under optimal conditions. But most Styrofoam we use never breaks down.
  • As Styrofoam breaks into smaller pieces, it becomes more difficult to clean up. Styrofoam pieces block our drains. Styrofoam particles embed themselves in our soil or float out to sea. This is costly for island and coastal economies that depend heavily on tourism and agriculture.
  • Expanded polystyrene foam is 98% air. This means that when Styrofoam is left in our environment, it fills with rainwater and creates mosquito breeding grounds.
  • Styrofoam takes up valuable space in our landfills. Eventually, we will run out of landfill space if we continue to use Styrofoam. In Trinidad, 32.95 tons of expanded polystyrene are thrown away daily.
  • When Styrofoam ends up in our streams, rivers and oceans, marine organisms eat it. Marine organisms suffer because Styrofoam causes choking, starvation and a buildup of toxic chemicals in their tissues. In addition to killing turtles, fish and seabirds, the toxic chemical buildup in these organisms over time ends up in our food supply.
  • When marine organisms try to digest Styrofoam, they cannot perform their normal activities helping the ecosystem. As a result, the marine ecosystem suffers disruption.
  • With the stress of climate change and pollution, our oceans and coastlines cannot afford the extra stress from Styrofoam without compromising the ecosystem services that our bodies of water provide for us daily. That includes food, filtration, climate regulation, healthy coral reefs and storm protection.

Green economy products already exist, ranging from sugarcane bagasse, recycled pet bottles, burlap/crocus/jute, cotton/linen canvas and hemp.  So why is there still a perception that Styrofoam is cheaper than biodegradable options? If we just look at upfront costs, biodegradable options are $0.10 to $0.40 more.

Can incentives for biodegradable options really deal with the issue? Yes, but not unless there is a phase-in plan to introduce biodegradable options at the local level. India, some U.S. states, Guyana, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Barbados are taking steps to ban Styrofoam or plastics. In time, perhaps other countries will see the ecological, financial and health benefits of removing Styrofoam from their environments.

This is an article by Dr. Ariana Marshall Faculty Member, School of STEM at American Public University and Caribbean Sustainability Collective Director. 

Plastic-eating worm might pave the way for ocean clean-up

When it comes to human waste products and pollutants, plastic claims the crown. There are very few things our planet can throw at it to get rid of the polymer. It becomes bendy and rippy and shredy but it just won’t go away. When you compound the resilience of this headstrong material with the sheer quantities of it that we dump into the oceans, it looks like a pretty one-sided battle that nature can’t win, despite all our desperate efforts to increase recycling and take it out of landfills.

But now it seems that mother nature still had a trick up her sleeve, and the non-biodegradable reign of plastic is about to come to an end, undermined by the heroic appetite of the mealworm.

Noble. Heroic. Grubby.
Image via sciencedaily

Researchers at the Stanford University in US and Beihang University in China worked together and found that the larval state of the darkling beetle — known as the mealworm — can safely process and even subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other polysterene thanks to bacteria in the guts of this worm that can naturally biodegrade plastic during the digestive process. This could spell the end of the landfill as we know it today, and could finally give us the means to clean our oceans of plastic accumulate from the last decades.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” co-author Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, said in a statement.

During the study, 100 mealworms ate their way through 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam each day, turning it into carbon dioxide and biodegraded droppings. They remained healthy on a diet of plastic, and their droppings were tested safe for use as soil crops.

While the amount of plastic we throw away each day might dwarf the worms’ appetite as recorded in the study, they’re just the first step. Now that scientists have a starting point, further research might allow us to engineer more powerful enzymes for plastic degradation, even kinds that the mealworms can’t process — such as polypropylene, microbeads, and bioplastics.

The researchers are also looking to find whether a marine equivalent of the mealworm may exist, as hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans are an ongoing environmental concern.

“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervised the research. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”

The studies are published in Environmental Science & Technology, here and here.

New York City to Ban Styrofoam in July 2015

The administration of New York City mayor Bill De Blasio announced today that styrofoam will be banned in the city starting in July this year, in an attempt to “green up” the city. The decision comes after the Department of Sanitation that Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) announced that styrofoam is non-recyclable.

New York City announced a ban on styrofoam – users have until July 2015 to find an alternative. Image via Black Business Now.

Styrofoam is actually a trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam currently made for thermal insulation and craft applications. It is owned and manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company. However, colloquially, in the US, styrofoam is used to name any expanded (not extruded) polystyrene foam, such as disposable coffee cups, coolers, or cushioning material in packaging, which is typically white and is made of expanded polystyrene beads.

The ban means that now the material won’t be used at all within the city – so you can say goodbye to the traditional coffee cups, food containers, and packing materials as well as insulation. Mayor De Blasio is optimistic about the ban’s environmental impact and the law is expected to keep some 30,000 tons of EPS waste out of New York landfills and streets.

“These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City.”

In 2013, a law was introduced to restrict the sale of single-use polystyrene containers. However, authorities still gave styrofoam a chance, as long as a method to recycle it would be deemed viable. This proved not to be the case, and at least in NYC, you can say goodbye to styrofoam!