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Finnish wood foam could replace plastic in packaging

Mixtures such as lignin, wood fibre and laponite have been found to produce a foam that resists shock and humidity.

Mikko Raskinen

Researchers at Aalto University have utilised artificial intelligence to introduce wood-like properties to a bio-based material in a bid to develop a substitute for styrofoam and bubble wrap.

The research team is currently looking to optimise the properties by exploring different material mixtures and production methods, such as extrusion and web formation. A mixture of lignin, wood fibre and laponite, for example, has been found to produce a foam that resists shock and humidity, making it a viable alternative to plastic.

The material is “remarkably” similar to cork, only dozens of times lighter.

“Artificial intelligence uses previous data to show us how to add a desired feature with less effort,” toldJuha Koivisto, a post-doctoral researcher at Aalto University.

“Traditional material development is slow and unpredictable, and new materials may have even emerged by accident, as was the case with Teflon. In this project, we utilise machine learning, with which we can exclude superfluous combinations of materials and processes and considerably accelerate development work.”

Juha Koivisto, a post-doctoral researcher at Aalto University, measured the strength of the bio-based foam. Image: Mikko Raskinen

Professor Mikko Alava pointed out that for a material to replace styrofoam and bubble wrap in commercial packaging applications, it must be affordable, biodegradable and producible in large quantities. If the team succeeds in demonstrating that the material is both fire safe and humidity resistant, its strength, lightness and heat insulation properties would also make it suitable for insulating buildings.

“The most extraordinary feature of the foam is that it is edible,” said Koivisto. “The method makes it possible to produce foam from carrot, lingonberry or beetroot powder, and make chips out of them similar to potato crisps.”

The research has received funding from both the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation and Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. Business Finland, in turn, has granted funding to explore commercial applications and markets for the material, bringing the total project funding to nearly one million euros.

By: Aleksi Teivainen