Researchers Make Insulation Board Out of Popcorn

Building materials should be natural and almost edible.

A closeup of movie theater popcorn
Popcorn can be turned into insulation.

PeopleImages/ Getty Images

We have often suggested that building materials and insulations should be almost edible, noting previously that "cork, straw, and mushrooms can keep you warm and be a healthy, high-fiber part of a balanced building diet." Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Göttingen, Germany, we can add popcorn to the list.

The press release takes a stab at answering a question that we have often asked about building materials: "What does sustainability really mean? It means the material should be environmentally friendly and made from renewable raw materials, it must have good thermal insulation and fire protection, and it must be easy to recycle at the end of its useful life."

The research team led by Professor Alireza Kharazipour has been working on this for years–Professor Kharazipour has popcorn related patents going back to 2007–and has now "managed to develop a process by which insulation boards made of “granulated” popcorn can be produced that have excellent thermal insulation properties and good protection against fire. The great advantage of this granular material is it is a plant-based, environmentally friendly, and a sustainable alternative to the products derived from petroleum currently used in the industry."

 "This new process, based on that of the plastics industry, enables the cost-effective production of insulation boards at an industrial scale," explains the head of the research group, Professor Alireza Kharazipour. "Especially in the field of insulation in construction, this ensures that natural insulation materials are no longer just niche products." In addition, the new popcorn products have water-repellent properties, which opens up even more opportunities for practical applications and extends their useful life."
Popcorn insulation board

 Karl Bachl GmbH & Co. KG

The board, which looks more like my beloved Rice Krispie Treats than it does like popcorn (I wonder what the R-Value of rice crispies is), is now being manufactured by  Karl Bachl GmbH & Co, a major producer of concrete and plastic foam insulation. It doesn't seem like a good fit, but hey,
Michael Küblbeck, group managing director, says: "For us, this is another important milestone in our strategic development towards becoming an integrated, multi-material insulation supplier. Popcorn insulation complements our quality range perfectly and means we can respond even more precisely to the different requirements of the market and our customers."

Stefan Schult, managing director of Nordgetreide GmbH & Co. KG, a company that has "many years of expertise in the gentle processing of maize, wheat, barley and rice" says it is much greener than other materials, noting in an MBM Science Bridge press release about using it in packaging:

“Every day we pollute our earth with an exponentially increasing amount of plastic waste, which pollutes our ecological system for thousands of years. Our popcorn packaging is an excellent, sustainable alternative to petroleum-based styrofoam. The plant-based packaging is made from a residue from our cornflakes production that is not suitable for food and can be composted without leaving any residue after use."
Promo image of Twinkies

Years ago, I wrote a controversial post, "Why Plastic Foam Insulation Is Like a Twinkie: Lessons Green Builders Can Learn From Michael Pollan," where I suggested that Michael Pollan's little book of food rules should apply to building materials. I thought the Twinkie was very much like a modern building product, full of chemicals, and noted that "at TreeHugger we have covered both green buildings and green food, and the arguments about the merits of plastic insulation vs natural products, what we put in our houses, are almost identical to those we have been having about what we put in out mouths."

Pollan had written about processed foods:

"Use food products made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature. Read all the ingredients on a package of Twinkies or Pringles and imagine what those ingredients actually look like raw or in the places they grow; You can't do it. This rule will keep all kinds of chemicals and food-like substances out of your diet."

I suggested our building materials should be the same. At the time, many objected in the now-deleted comments that I was being simplistic and dangerous in calling for avoiding complex products with ingredients that a third-grader couldn't pronounce: "Asbestos and coal tar are natural and pronounceable, do you want to back to having those in your buildings?"

I disagreed. "Here is a plea for simplicity. These become very complex substances that may be full of ingredients approved in North America but rejected in Europe, where the REACH program is much stricter than American controls. Who's right? Why are you willing to risk it?"

Now that we are worried about carbon as well as health, these ideas are no longer controversial. Now many agree that we should be building out of sunshine, out of renewables that come from the sky, carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air, sunlight, and water, which, through the process of photosynthesis, are turned into plants that we can turn into building materials. Insulation made from popcorn seems like such a wonderful addition to the list of edible building products.

Forty percent of American corn is refined into ethanol because it was thought to reduce dependency on foreign oil. Now it is a subsidy to farmers. Imagine if it was turned into popcorn and then into insulation. This could be big.

marshmallow squares

Laurie Patterson/ Getty Images

Given its resemblance to Rice Krispie squares, I got hungry and wondered how attractive the popcorn insulation was to mice and other animals, as well as what the thermal resistivity was. I have reached out to Kharazipour and will update this item when he responds.