SMaRT Construction Panels

16 May 2017

SMaRT construction panels:

Made from waste, cost effective, non-toxic, superior performance, recyclable

Particle boards have transformed construction and furniture making. This bulk, cost effective product is suitable for almost any application as it can be engineered to match the exact requirements of a product or building application. The first recorded particle board was produced in 1887 when sawdust was bound together with a blood-albumin adhesive; a big advance at the time given the large volumes of wood waste, wood chips and saw dust that otherwise was unable to be used. The first particle board factory opened in Germany in 1941 and, today, particle boards now make up over half of the entire wood products market worldwide. Particle boards are made primarily of wood particles bonded together at sufficiently high temperatures. Although wood is renewable, particle boards are not necessarily environmentally friendly. About 95% of the lignocellulosic material that forms their bulk is derived from new wood from forests and plantations, leading to deforestation and the loss of natural habitat. The remaining 20% or so of particle boards are made up of resins, most of which are formaldehyde-based.

Numerous research projects have sought to replace some of all or the wood and wood waste used in particle boards with other woody type materials that are much faster growing and are currently thrown away, like corn cobs, rice husks, maize, coconut coirs and even used cotton clothing. Much of this work is promising, in terms of taking pressure off slower growing forests. However, it doesn’t address the other key environmental issue of resin. Formaldehyde-based resins are volatile organic compounds, which mean they breakdown at room temperature, slowly emitting formaldehyde gases into the atmosphere, so into homes and other buildings. Although concentrations are very small, formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen. And as formaldehyde is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, there are good reasons to seek alternative binders for particle boards both from health and environmental perspectives.

A recipe for a new green particleboard

SMaRT boards avoid the use of both new wood and conventional resins. The particles are sourced from used wood, that is then shredded, and from saw dust from wood/wood products processors and furniture makers. The binder is made up of mixed waste plastics that are currently landfilled. In landfill, plastics take up to 5,000 years to degrade. To ensure the product performs as well or better than conventional particle boards, natural additives have been used to improve fire and moisture resistance, key properties for many building applications. 

Researchers came across some interesting historical examples of fire retardants during the particle board development project. For example, in the Netherlands anthropologists reported evidence of ‘almost indestructible’ roofs dating back to the 1700s made from a then common seaweed, called eelgrass, that was both resistant to fire and decay. Large volumes of seaweed wash ashore worldwide, and recently this marine waste attracted the interest of materials scientists looking for high performing alternative, sustainable resources. Australian seaweed waste (Kelp brown algae) was sourced locally was trialled as a ground additive to the SMaRT panels. It delivered even better than expected results. Sea shells are another common waste, given the large volumes of shells thrown away by the food industries. Waste bi-valve mollusc shells, left over after processing, returned similarly excellent result. To the best of our knowledge, incorporating marine materials into a novel hybrid green bio-composite has never been done before. Testing demonstrated the panels perform just as well as equivalent conventional products. These panels are also being made in a laminate form, with a waste glass layer making up both outer surfaces and a particle board in between. This glass-composite panel delivers exceptional insulating properties and durability and is expected to be suitable for outdoor uses.