Innovation That Matters

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Can a biochar material replace polystyrene foam?


The strong, carbon-negative foam can be used as alternative packaging or in building projects

Spotted: Most people are familiar with polystyrene foam – a plastic material, also known as expanded polystyrene (EPS), used to create takeout containers, cups and protective packaging. Because it’s not readily recyclable, EPS often ends up in the environment, breaking down into microplastics or floating around oceans. Now, startup Carbon Cell is on a mission to find a sustainable alternative to polymer-based foams like EPS.

The founders of Carbon Cell met while studying in a graduate programme in Innovation Design Engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Arts. Together, they developed a high-performance expandable foam that is fully compostable and locks in carbon for centuries.

Carbon Cell’s foam is made from biochar, a material similar to charcoal that’s created by heating organic biomass, like potato peels and discarded organic textiles, at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The result is a carbon-negative, lightweight material that’s three times stronger than EPS. Carbon Cell’s manufacturing process also allows the foam to be manufactured in customisable shapes and sizes, making it perfect for use as a replacement for EPS in applications ranging from packaging to construction.

The startup has participated in a number of prestigious accelerators and competitions, including the Innovate UK competition, Carbon13, and the Imperial Enterprise Lab.

Other innovators working to reduce plastic waste include a company making packaging materials from crop waste and mycelium and a fully compostable alternative to cling film made from bio-waste.

Written By: Lisa Magloff



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