Necessity is the mother of invention.” –Plato
Every year over 10 million tons of polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) are produced worldwide. It comprises almost 30% of total landfill volume and an estimated 20% of all Styrofoam produced ends up in our water ways. Styrofoam releases microscopic particles into the ground and our water supply, and it takes centuries to break down. It also endangers human health, having been linked to neurological effects and increased cancer after prolonged exposure. (greendiningal-liance.org)
Prof Dr Alireza Kharazipour has made it his life’s work to do something about the polystyrene problem.
Over 40 years ago, he completed his doctorate on the topic of natural binders (bonding agents). Since earning his PhD, Dr Kharazipour has dedicated most of his studies and research to find solutions to the world’s land pollution problems. He explained, “After that day, to this day, I mainly work with renewable raw materials. I have published numerous publications in international journals and now have over 100 patents worldwide. The idea of using innovative materials from renewable resources originates with me.”
Prof Dr. Kharazipour’s popcorn packaging epiphany came to him serendipitously. Ten plus years ago, he was having no success in his research finding materials to replace polystyrene. He decided to take a break one evening and attended the cinema with his wife in Göttingen, Germany. While there, Prof Dr Kharazipour decided to purchase a bag of popcorn. As fate would have it, the tasty, feather-light popcorn granules he consumed that night would change his life. “In the dark of the theater, the popcorn felt as light as Styrofoam balls. I was inspired to try and produce feather-light granules from popcorn. The next day I bought some kernels and popped them at home in a pot. After, the whole house smelled like popcorn, so I moved my experiments to the laboratory at the university.” The rest, they say, is history.
Prof Dr Kharazipour’s laboratory is at the Büsgen Institute at Georg August University at Göttingen, Germany. Since 2008, led by Prof Dr Kharazipour, the Chemistry and Process Engineering of Composite Materials group there has been working in the renewable raw materials field. The group has succeeded in developing three-dimensional form-to-fit packaging made from popcorn granulate (worldofprint.com).
Prof Dr Kharazipour is proud of his team’s work. “I and my team at the Büs-gen Institute have developed around 40 products that consist of 100% crushed popcorn granulate and proteins (as binders). Our aim is to replace the polystyrene products with our popcorn-based products. The processes for making popcorn-based products are remarkably similar to the process for making polystyrene products. We work with vapour-free processes, such as radio wave frequency technology,” he explained.
Prof Dr Kharazipour then explained how popcorn is converted to packaging material. “The grain maize is mechanically shredded into so-called maize scrap. The crushed corn is then expanded into granulated popcorn using a steam pressure process. The products are exceptionally light because popcorn granules are filled with air-like honey-combs. When grain maize expands into popcorn, the volume increases by 15 to 20%. One cubic meter of our popcorn granulate weighs approx. 65 kg / m³. By-products from the corn industry, for example broken corn, can also be used for popcorn products.”
The granules are then pressed together to form sheets or panels. The bonding agent is made from plant proteins that are compostable. It is so eco-friendly that it can also be used as animal fodder. And they perform better than polystyrene. According to the YouTube video: A Natural Substitute for Polystyrene, “The popcorn panels absorb heat better and performs better than polystyrene in the flammability test. When exposed to flame, the polystyrene panels melt, releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere, while the popcorn panels barely catch fire.”
Popcorn technology is not limited to packaging. Prof Dr Kharazipour explained. “The products made from popcorn granulate can be used to produce biogas or can be mechanically shredded and produced again. The material can be reused or even composted at home.”
Göttingen University recently signed a license agreement with a company to process and produce their environmentally friendly popcorn products for the packaging sector in Europe. Prof Dr Kharazipour hopes this is only the beginning. In fact, he shared how his goal is to expand his popcorn packaging concept globally. “My industrial partner wants to manufacture various packaging products soon and, hopefully, not only market them across Europe, but also worldwide. Another industrial partner wants to produce insulation boards from popcorn to insulate the inside and outside walls of houses. I think this is my contribution as a scientist for a clean environment, free of plastic-based products.”