A research team at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has successfully transformed paper waste into aerogel, an ultra-lightweight material used in insulation. Aerogels are typically made from silica, metal oxides, and polymers, but a paper-based formula is a great deal more eco-friendly and cost-effective. Recycling paper into a highly sought after substance like aerogels could prove to be a useful method for reducing landfill waste, while replacing hazardous chemicals often used in aerogel manufacturing.
Assistant Professor Duong Hai Minh, along with undergraduate students Gu Bowen and Siah Jie Yang, developed the technique by mulching paper to extract cellulose fibers and then mixed them with water. They added a polymer resin and then the solution is agitated by sound in a process known as sonication. It’s then poured into molds, frozen, freeze dried for two days, and cured in a 120º C (248º F) oven.
The resulting aerogel is super strong and biodegradable. Cellulose aerogel could also revolutionize oil spill cleanup efforts. “In addition to low thermal conductivity, these novel aerogels have several unique features, one of which is super high oil absorption capacity,” said Duong. “It is up to four times higher than commercial sorbents available in the market. We are very excited about the potential applications of this new material.”
Cellulose aerogels is capable of absorbing oil, excluding water, up to 90 times its dry weight – four times more effective than existing commercial oil sorbents. The aerogels can then be squeezed to recover more than 99 percent of the crude oil absorbed, so it can be reused. The team has applied for patents in the U.S., China, India, and Southeast Asia, and the product is planned to be manufactured soon for insulation, packaging, winter clothing, and oil cleanup.