Scientists turn popcorn into an eco-friendly building material

GÖTTINGEN, Germany — Popcorn may soon be moving from movie theater snack stands to the theater’s walls themselves! Scientists at the University of Göttingen have developed of method to turn popcorn into eco-friendly building insulation. The team says these materials could cut down on the use of less sustainable products to keep buildings warm and reduce heating costs.

Good insulation in a building cuts down on the need to provide heat through oil and gas, resulting in fewer CO2 emissions. Researchers note that the construction market is dominated by traditional building materials, including plastics and mineral fibers — making up about 90 percent of all insulation products. Moreover, manufacturers also use plastics coming from petroleum to make exterior insulation too.

What does sustainability really mean?

Researchers say sustainable and natural options for building insulation are already available. When it comes to what makes insulation eco-friendly, the team says these materials should include renewable raw materials, have good thermal insulation, be resistant to fire, and be easy to recycle when the building eventually comes down.

In their experiments, the team with Göttingen’s Faculty of Forest Sciences and Forest Ecology successfully developed a novel process for making a sustainable and efficient popcorn-based insulation board. Researchers managed to create a process which produces boards composed of “granulated” popcorn.

Tests show the boards have excellent “thermal insulation properties” and (unlike the popcorn you eat) protect against fire very well. Study authors believe the biggest advantage popcorn insulation has is that it is a plant-based material. This makes it environmentally-friendly and a sustainable alternative to petroleum products and other industry plastics.

“This new process, based on that of the plastics industry, enables the cost-effective production of insulation boards at an industrial scale,” explains the head of the research group, Professor Alireza Kharazipour, in a university release. “Especially in the field of insulation in construction, this ensures that natural insulation materials are no longer just niche products.”

Additionally, the team finds their popcorn boards are water-repellent as well, possibly expanding their usefulness and shelf life as a building material.