Use in the construction industry

Rigid foams made from expanded polymers like polyurethane find many uses as building materials, but their manufacture and end-of-life considerations make them totally unsuitable for the sustainable construction industry that the planet needs. . Today, a new generation of plant-based rigid foam products have entered the market, allowing developers to use the desirable characteristics of rigid foam without the environmental drawbacks.

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About a quarter of the global foam market is made up of rigid foams (flexible foams and semi-rigid full-skin foams taking up most of the remaining market share). Overall, the foam market is growing at around 7% per year and is estimated today at around $ 82 million worldwide. Most consumers of rigid foam are in the construction industry, where the materials find various applications in waterproofing, thermal barriers and flooring.

Rigid foams made from polymers like polyurethane have become so common in the construction industry due to their easy formulation and processing and relatively low energy consumption for manufacturing. Other polymers used in rigid foams include polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyacrylonitrile butadiene styrene (polystyrene). All of these plastics are made from petrochemicals found in petroleum and are very difficult to remove.

For these reasons, there has been considerable interest in recent years in the development of plant-based polymers which can be foamed into rigid materials for the construction industry.

A new generation of rigid foams based on biopolymers is currently growing in terms of market share. These foams are made from biopolymers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol, polyvinyl alcohol, polysaccharide and starch. Biopolymers generally represent less incorporated carbon (CO2e) ordinary polymers based on fossil fuels. This is not only because it is less energy intensive to extract from plant-based organic polymer sources than to extract oil and gas, but also because of CO.2 that plants naturally sequester out of the atmosphere as they grow.

The most common biological sources for rigid polymer foams are functionalized reagents based on vegetable oil. These reagents are less potentially harmful than petrochemical polymers and can also produce polymers that biodegrade much faster and healthier than fossil plastic. Significantly, they also come from a renewable source which is usually native to where the vegetable is produced, growing profusely.

Organic foams are even more environmentally friendly when produced with as many biodegradable components as possible. Rigid foam products typically take up large amounts of landfill space or must undergo expensive processing to be destroyed or recycled. But the use of carefully selected organic ingredients for these products means that entire panels can be composted or even used in biomass-to-energy (BE) generators.

Commercial applications of herbal rigid foams use additional reinforcement and additives in the mixture to create multifunctional products. Often these additives are themselves of vegetable origin. Biofoam manufacturers use additives to increase moisture resistance, flame retardant properties and UV protection of products.

More Materials – Slate: Applications and Benefits

Despite the many advantages of rigid plant-based foams, they still represent a much smaller market than alternatives derived from fossil fuels. Some researchers working closely on this issue are blaming manufacturers and developers who are too cautious to make the investments – and long-term commitments – necessary for bio-foams to achieve the economies of scale needed for widespread adoption. .

For this reason, increasing the availability of government-funded biodegradability incentives, tax credits and carbon credits for bio-foams will be necessary for the rigid foams industry to make a change. This boost for the industry is expected to correlate with more academic studies on the structural and other properties of rigid plant-based foams.

Understand the applications of rigid plant-based foams in construction

The main applications in the construction industry for rigid biological foams are noise reduction and shock absorption, but plant-based polymers can be foamed for any task than their fuel-based counterparts. fossils can also perform. The original purpose of lightweight foams was for use as core panels in sandwich composites.

Rigid high density (low flexibility) foams have been made from polyols derived from tall oil fatty acids (from conifers). These foams work well as thermally conductive structural components in a building, providing insulation as well as lift for the building design.

A team of researchers working at the University of Latvia, Riga Technical University and the Latvian State Institute of Wood Chemistry in Riga, Latvia recently showed that herbal rigid foam at Tall oil fatty acid base behaves in a manner comparable to rigid polyurethane foam, suggesting that the material may well serve as a structural thermal break. The research was published in Building and construction materials in 2020.

University research also makes palm oil a viable candidate for polymerization and foaming into rigid foam products. In a recent conference paper, researchers from Malaysia used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to show that these products have good dimensional stability at extreme temperatures of -150 ° C to 700 ° C.

References and further reading


Andersons, J., et al. (2020). Biobased high density rigid polyurethane foams as thermal break material. Building and construction materials. Available at:

Chevali, V. and E. Kandare (2016). Rigid biofoam composites as eco-efficient building materials. Biopolymers and biotechnological adjuvants for eco-efficient building materials. Available at:

Luo, X., A. Mohanty and M. Misra (2012). Rigid water-blown bio-foams from soy-based biopolyurethane and microcrystalline cellulose. Journal of the American Oil Chemistry Society.

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