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'Biofoambark' project wins prizes

November 2, 2012

FREIBURG, GERMANY (Nov. 2, 4:15 p.m. ET)  — A project at the Freiburg Materials Research Center which aims to produce insulating foam using extracts from tree bark has won prizes for the scientists involved.

Leader of the project professor Marie-Pierre Laborie from the Faculty of Forest and Environmental Sciences of the University of Freiburg has been named “German High Tech Champion,” by the Fraunhofer Association in the category “Green Buildings.”

Laborie will receive 15,000 euro ($19,500) together with colleagues professors Antonio Pizzi and Alain Celzard from the French Université de Lorraine.

The prize will be awarded at Pollutec 2012, an international trade fair for environmental equipment, technology, and services, being held Nov. 27-30 in Lyon, France.

A statement from the Freiburg center says that Laborie’s research team make hard foams using tannin, a compound found in tree bark, typically left over as a waste product in the lumber industry.

Since the foams have good insulating and flame-resistant properties, they can be used predominantly as insulating material for buildings and moulded automobile parts, claims the center.

Also, the group says, they could be used as catalysts or filters for heavy metals and as a replacement for packaging materials like styrofoam. And Freiburg claims they will “even be useful after the products themselves are worn out,” since a further goal is to convert the foams into biofuel.

“We want to relieve the burden on the environment by increasing the usefulness of wood and offering a marketable alternative to petroleum-based foams,” Laborie said in a statement.

According to the Freiburg center, the foam made in the lab uses tannin, furfuryl alcohol and a solvent, such as diethyl ether, with formaldehyde as a crosslinking agent. “We are still looking for a less environmentally harmful, natural cross-linking agent to replace formaldehyde in the future,” said Ricarda B"hm, a doctoral candidate in Laborie’s research group.

The scientists are trying to use only natural raw materials, and ideally waste products. One interesting candidate is aldehyde furfural, which can be produced from sawdust.

The work also is using natural additives that prevent the foam from crumbling too much, and the foams also can be modified with nanocellulose to improve their mechanical stability, the center said.

The “Biofoambark” work is being supported by the Agency for Renewable Resources with funds from the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection. As well as the University of Freiburg, collaborators on the project include the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, and scientific and industrial partners in Italy, Spain, Finland, Slovenia, and France.