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As the world is drowning deeper into plastic waste, scientists are offering to produce thermal packaging from an undervalued, but a very widely available material – fine needle foliage.
Essentially, needle foliage is logging residue, its application possibilities are considerably wider than the ones currently used. «Developing a forest, small branches with needles remain in there. After cutting down trees, the needles and branches can be used for the production of wood chips or under ground cover, so that in case of bad weather the equipment could move through the forest. In small quantities, needles in Latvia are also used in the production of needle extracts,» says Indra Muižniece, RTU Institute of Environmental Protection and Thermal Systems lead researcher. «Vecventa Ltd» processes needles in Piltene, several companies use processed needles for their products, such as needle extracts and chlorophyll paste, as raw materials for the production of cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. According to RTU researchers, in order to obtain maximum economic, social, and environmental benefits, needles should be fully utilized, simultaneously creating several high added value products. For example, after obtaining the extract, the material left behind, which usually turns into bio-waste, could be used for the production of thermal insulation materials. And there would be nothing left behind. «That would be a perfect plan for the sustainable use of resources, in parallel producing several different products from a single material flow. Moreover, it would be economically viable,» says I. Muižniece, recalling the basic idea of biotechnology – making the most out of resources by creating new products with added-value using technologies, instead of disposing resources or their residues in landfills. A certain pharmaceutical company seems to like this philosophy, as they are already using needle-based substances for their products; the company has expressed interest in collaborating in the development of the sustainable use of needles in production, adds the RTU researcher.
Replacing food containers
The thermal insulation material made of needle foliage and an organic binder, which is still kept secret, is environmentally friendly and harmless to human health, biodegradable, and thus does not create new waste mountains, its thermal conductivity is equivalent to other heat insulation materials available on the market, says I. Muižniece, who has been studying the use of needles for years. Having originally studied the possibilities to create materials for building insulation, she and her colleagues are now focusing on the development of thermal packaging material, which, as the researcher points out, «is essentially a thermal insulation material, but for a narrower application.» At the moment, research and development is being carried out thanks to the EU financial support for the programme «Support for Commercialisation of Research Results» administered by the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA). The team consists of Dagnija Blumberga, Indra Muižniece, Krišs Spalviņš, Lauma Žihare, Kaspars Ivanovs, Ivars Veidenbergs, Sarma Valtere, and Kārlis Valters.
«We have identified all our weak points and we are working to find a compromise between the various factors that affect properties. We are planning experiments where we will look at how the factors interact in order to obtain the optimal result. It is essential that the physical and mechanical properties meet the requirements of the thermal packaging and that the end product is user-friendly,» explains I. Muižniece. Packaging must also protect the product from fluctuations in external temperature during transportation or storage, and its mechanical resistance is also important. «At present, there are different sizes of thermal packaging: from small boxes for ordering takeout at restaurants or grocery stores to huge containers for transporting large-scale products. Therefore, the material must be strong enough to produce large-scale packaging. We are focusing on packaging of similar size and shape to compete by offering an alternative to existing ones. Large-sized thermal packaging is mostly made from polyurethane. The main value of our material is that its life cycle does not have an adverse effect on climate, the environment and human health, it decomposes in nature,» emphasises the researcher.
Currently, they are working on secondary packaging material – one that does not come into contact with food or medication. It is necessary for transporting various food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, chemical products and other substances. They plan that in the future it will follow the primary packaging, which will replace lunchboxes made from synthetic materials.
Selling in the name of development
To make sure that there is market demand, a number of processors of wood resources working in Latvia have been introduced to samples of thermal packaging created in the laboratory. «First of all, we contacted local companies, because we want to use Latvian resources and to develop our national economy,» the researcher is patriotic, adding that there definitely is interest from the business side, but for the time being she is refraining from naming certain companies.
Business interest is an essential prerequisite for the commercialisation of scientific ideas, which in turn is the goal of the programme administered by the LIAA. Over the next two years, scientists are planning to develop their technology to a degree of readiness to conclude a license agreement with one or more manufacturers. Researchers do not want to start their own company because «scientific institutions do not prioritize starting a business, we focus on selling the idea, we are looking for buyers who will bring our innovation to life. In turn, we will invest the money back in research and science to develop new ideas».