A 2-year-old Maine start-up called Revolution Research Inc. was awarded a $100,000 federal grant to support its development of eco-friendly ceiling tiles made of a cellulose-based polymer.
Nadir Yildirim, president of the Orono-based business, said his small staff is using forest-based raw materials and nanotechnology to create a product that is durable, has high insulation properties, and can be composted. His goal is to achieve a 90 to 95 percent recycle rate for an industry seeking sustainable management of construction and demolition (C&D) materials.
About 534 million tons of C&D debris in the form of asphalt shingles, drywall, windows, concrete, glass and the like was generated in 2014 — double the amount of municipal solid waste, according to the latest figure from the Environmental Protection Agency. Demolition represents more than 90 percent of the total compared to less than 10 percent for construction. While some C&D materials are recycled or salvaged, a lot of it ends up at landfills and incinerators.
Suspended ceiling tiles are widely used to provide easy access to utilities but most brands available on the market absorb water, which leads to sagging, staining and mold or mildew growth, EPA says. The tiles also contain potentially hazardous chemicals and release airborne fibers when broken or cut. About 10 million square feet of these tiles are discarded every year because they aren't compostable or recyclable, according to EPA. The agency is trying to change that with the grant to Revolution Research.
Yildirim said his team of five is looking at a unique manufacturing process that uses nanocellulose, which he says is a widely available byproduct of the forest products industry. Just like steel bars give strength to concrete wall systems, cellulose gives strength to trees, he explained.
“We are taking the steel bars of trees and using them in our product,” Yildirim said in a telephone interview.
The ceiling tiles will have a three-dimensional treated surface to make them fire retardant and water repellant not only on the surfaces and edges but inside the panels, Yildirim said, so they can be cut and resized without compromising performance.
“We are kind of treating each molecule in the structure,” he said, adding that if the tile is cut it won't expose an untreated edge that can get humid and sag like existing tiles that have only surface films or vinyl coatings for protection.
Yildirim said he couldn't provide much information about how the materials would be processed.
“It's our own production technique,” he said. “It can be called molding, but it's not like injection molding. We are using existing technology for other markets that has never been used for the construction market. We believe we can make it work for this industry. I can't go into detail because we are working on the patent application right now.”
Revolution Research will use the grant money to create a prototype of a ceiling tile that measures 10-inches-by-20-inches and is a half-inch thick for mostly commercial and industrial applications, such as schools, gyms and offices.
“Our business strategy isn't to be a manufacturer right now,” Yildirim said. “We'd like to be a research and product development company and license the technology or make partnerships with big companies.”
If the product is commercialized, it could support job growth in northern Maine, where the decline of the pulp and paper industry has “severely impacted” the local economy, Yildirim added.
He said he got the idea to make “green” ceiling tiles while shopping with his family at a big box retailer. He had to walk around a cordoned-off area where some ceiling tiles had fallen to the floor. He said he looked up and saw other tiles sagging overhead with moldy streaks of black and brown. That got him thinking about how many tons of C&D materials end up in landfills and how there had to be a better way.
“The store had put out buckets and safety warnings,” Yildirim recalled. “I saw it's a real problem with a mechanical performance issue, safety issue and environmental issue.”
The EPA agrees. The agency is funding Revolution Research's plan from its program called Small Business Innovation Research.
“This company is among those producing innovative and creative solutions for our country's environmental problems,” Curt Spalding, regional administrator of the EPA's New England office, said in a news release. “Small businesses are important to our efforts to find and create technologies that will help ensure a sustainable future for our country.”
EPA awarded $1.3 million to 13 businesses in all that are working on solutions for environmental issues.