Green and insulating: Researchers develop sustainable fireproofing materials from waste paper

Swiss researchers found a hot new purpose for waste paper products. They developed a chemical process that can turn paper into a fireproof insulator. Their new method would reduce the need for insulation materials that depend on the availability of dwindling petroleum supplies.

When it catches fire, wood eventually crumbles into ash. But the recycled paper fiber product maintained its shape during tests. This sturdiness could make it invaluable as a construction material for load-bearing parts of wooden structures.

The new insulation material would be machine-blown into the hollow cavity of a structure. The paper fibers were designed to flow well in order to speed up the blowing process and make it easier overall.

Once they filled the cavity, the fibers should maintain their shape to support the building during a fire. Furthermore, the material can match the form and sturdiness of a traditionally cut insulating panel.

“We had to search for a virtually magical binder for the isofloc cellulose fibers that are already established on the market – a material that ideally works from one second to the next,” explained EMPA researcher Franziska Gruneberger, the head of the project. (Related: What most preppers forget: How to disaster-proof your important documents.)

Turning paper fibers and food additives into fireproof insulation material

Gruneberger and her team worked alongside isofloc AG, a company that makes insulation materials. The EMPA researchers were in charge of selecting binding agents that fit the requirements for sustainable timber construction.

First, the binding agent should be non-toxic. It must not cause any health problems with humans who came into contact with it over long periods of time. Second, the agent needed to be cheap, easily acquired, and abundant.

Based on these requirements, the researchers determined that waste materials from certain industries could make for good binding agents. Various cosmetic, food, paper, and textile materials were examined for this purpose.

The research team experimented with different mixtures of insulating fibers and additives. At the same time, they tested various processes that could activate the binding process nearly instantly.

They eventually picked a substance from the food industry as the binding agent. Initial testing confirmed that this agent could bind cellulose flakes and held them together during a fire.

Out with toxic asbestos, in with safe insulators made from paper

Next, the researchers put their new insulation material through upscaling tests. They blew a mix of flakes and additives into a number of wooden frames, filled another group of frames with just flakes, and used traditional techniques for a third group.

Then they took the frames to the VKF ZIP AG fire laboratory and set them on fire with temperatures ranging from 1,472 to 1,832 F. Success was measured by how well the insulation protected the wooden frame from getting burned out, as well as preventing any flakes from falling out.

The results of the test showed that the new insulation material not only resisted the fire, but successfully maintained its shape. Meanwhile, the paper flakes in the third group did resist crumbling in the fire, but they fell out of their frame since they did not have an additive holding them together.

“Fitting the insulating material in loose form saves an enormous amount of time,” remarked isofloc official Jon-Anton Schmidt regarding the advantages of their new paper-based insulator. “With the additional advantage of dimensional stability and the associated effectiveness for fire safety, we can achieve protection that is on a par with glued mineral wool mats.”

With this discovery, waste paper would become a valuable substance for fireproof insulation. It will be the first blow-in insulating material once it entered the commercial market.

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