08/02/2011 04:45

Goal is to move toward renewable resources, away from other oil-based materials.
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Researchers at the Hebrew University have developed a new method to convert waste fibers from the paper industry into non-synthetic foam that can be re-used.

The project was spearheaded by Shaul Lapidot, a PhD student of Prof. Oded Shoseyov, at the university’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot.

The Melodea company licensed the product from the Hebrew University, and is now looking for seed money in order to bring the foam product to the market. That product has two parts, the microscopic fibers as well as the final foam material.

“Melodea is a Swedish-Israeli company that aims to bring materials for day to day use from renewable resources,” Lapidot said on Monday.

Using existing technology, the team of researchers was able to take cellulose, a natural material produced by trees, and reduce it to a microscopic scale. The tiny cellulose fibers were used as building blocks to create the three-dimensional, lightweight and strong foam.

Foams have many uses, ranging from seat cushions and the car industry to integral parts of aviation, and air and space technology.

The main inspiration for the project was large structures found in nature that have been neglected in the plastic age, such as wood, specifically the Redwood trees found in Northern California.

The team’s goal was to move away from plastics and other raw materials that require oil production and to mimic these large structures for industrial use.

To minimize environmental impact, the researchers carefully chose the source of fibers to produce this non-synthetic foam. Wood fibers are processed during paper production and this “produce huge amounts of waste,” explained Lapidot. “A large part of the fibers are not being used, and are washed away during production.”

The researchers have developed technology to convert these washed away waste fibers into the small cellulose fibers. From there, the new technology converts the fibers into the non-synthetic foam.

Lapidot and Shoseyov collaborated with Tord Gustafsson, a Swedish composite industry expert, Dr. Lea Carmel Goren, who is experienced in Israeli clean-tech and biotech industries, and Tzipi Landesman, who is experienced in business and marketing in hi-tech industries worldwide, to found Melodea.

The project was funded by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and partnered with the WOODY project, whose goal is to develop products from natural raw materials.

These foams have huge market possibilities, as they can be used as higher-end foams to create composite materials, materials that combine fabrics and foams, in industries such as aviation, construction and transportation, Lapidot said.

Melodea hopes to develop its business on two levels.

First, by replacing all PVC foams (synthetic foams made using oil), with all natural based foams. Second, by taking the raw materials from the waste of paper companies and converting it into a valuable product. The company is offering an alternative to paper companies spending money to dispose of their waste in landfills or burning it.