Step Aside Styrofoam — Make Way for Nanowood


Perenially despised — Styrofoam has seen its day in the sun. Could nanowood become a cost-effective, non-toxic, biodegradable and sustainable substitute for Styrofoam? The Washington Post/Getty Images

Nanowood is a new, ultra-lightweight insulating material that could potentially become a green alternative to the ubiquitous, environmentally hazardous Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene, or EPS) that currently clogs our landfills and pollutes our waterways. Made of tiny wood fibers, nanowood blocks heat up to 10 degrees more efficiently than Styrofoam, and with a strength-to-weight ratio that's about eight times that of steel, it can withstand 30 times more pressure than Styrofoam before crushing.

Invented by Tian Li and her research colleague, Liangbing Hu, at the University of Maryland, nanowood is a sustainable, non-toxic product that can be made from fast-growing and renewable farm-raised trees like balsa. Its current projected application is as a low-cost insulation and infrastructure material at residential, commercial and industrial sites. But did you know that Styrofoam is also foundational in the construction of bridges, roads, airport runways, stadiums and cars, to name just a few of the myriad places it's employed? The inventors of nanowood believe that it has huge promise as an eco-friendly building material which could potentially replace Styrofoam in most traditional applications, saving billions of dollars in energy costs and tons of environmental damage.

The Many Downsides of Styrofoam

While plastic such as Styrofoam may be cheap and convenient to use, it contributes to costly health issues and is an inconvenient pollutant that takes up to 500 years to biodegrade. Plastic pollution in general accounts for carcinogenic toxins leached into our food from disposable containers. Its manufacture releases harmful hydrocarbons into the atmosphere and if it's burned in landfills it releases carbon monoxide, contributing to air pollution and global warming.

Styrofoam is also an occupational hazard for workers, causing an array of health-related problems ranging from central nervous system disorders like headache and fatigue, to more extreme outcomes like cancer. It harms and kills both land and marine animals, blocking their digestive systems and sometimes choking them to death as it finds its way into our rivers and oceans, further damaging the environment. And because it's petroleum-based, it's non-sustainable.

Is nanowood the great green solution we've been hoping for? Could it become a cost-effective, non-toxic, biodegradable and sustainable substitute for Styrofoam? Will nanowood eventually replace to-go cups, carry-out containers and those pesky popcorn packing materials? For now it's too soon to tell, but with our fingers crossed we're rooting for you nanowood!


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