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Ragauskas, Art

Ragauskas Team Answers the Call to Develop Eco-friendly Insulation Materials

The latest research from Art Ragauskas, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Biorefining and interim department head in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and team could find its way into the very walls around us. Art Ragauskas and team have demonstrated that high-quality polyurethane (PU) foams are readily prepared from lignin extracted from biomass.

International interests have significantly advanced the use of bio-derived materials for polyurethanes over the last 10 years, including application for insulating foams. In alignment with this movement and supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Energy (ARPA-E), Ragauskas and team have demonstrated that high-quality polyurethane (PU) foams are readily prepared from lignin extracted from biomass.

This advancement strengthens overall operations of cellulosic biorefineries and provides PU foams with improved economic feasibility and environmental performance.

“We have demonstrated proof-of-science,” said Ragauskas. “We are now minimizing costs and maximizing life-cycle benefits.”

Ragauskas is a recognized expert in applications for lignin, including use in producing anti-oxidants, UV-screens, green additives for 3D printing, fuels, and membranes.

The goal of this current project is to develop higher performance, carbon negative, and eco-friendly lignin-PU foams as a building insulation material via non-isocyanate synthesis. Ragauskas leads a team from UT, the State University of New York, Clark Atlanta University, and the University of California, Riverside, directed at green foams

“In addition, we have recently reported that lignin fractionation prior to lignin-PU synthesis provides higher physical performance targets,” said Ragauskas. “To date, we have optimized lignin-PU foams to exhibit a closed-cell structure with densities compared to commercial foams.”

Objectives of the project included investigating and selecting the optimal biomass feedstock and lignin fractionation method for high-performance and low-cost lignin-PU synthesis—in this case lignin derived from sources like Populus trees (poplar, aspen, and cottonwood), Southern Pine, and corn stover.

The outcome of this project supports ARPA-E goals for development of technologies that nullify embodied greenhouse gas while simultaneously transforming buildings into net-carbon storage structures. Development of non-isocyanate lignin polyurethane insulation foams also directly addresses ARPA-E’s objective of developing technologies with clear disruptive potential by demonstrating capability for manufacturing at competitive cost and deployment at scale.

“The primary target markets for our project are bio-derived polyurethane insulation materials,” said Ragauskas. “These targets were selected after detailed discussions with commercial insulation manufacturers.”

This type of research achievement connects engineering at UT directly to industry partners and environmental stewardship that will direct impact on homes and businesses across Big Orange country.