The Smart Foams research project at Aalto University uses artificial intelligence to develop wood-based foams. Wood-based foam materials can replace Styrofoam and bubble wrap in packaging, for example.
’The project is based on biomimetics – a field which emulates natural phenomena. We use AI to develop a foam with properties similar to wood, such as strength, flexibility and resistance to heat,’ says Professor Mikko Alava in a news release by Aalto University.
The researchers strive to optimize the properties of the foam. A mixture of lignin, wood fibre and laponite (nanoclay), for example, can be processed into shock and heat resistant foam and used instead of plastic.
Lignin is the compound that binds wood fibres together. As a dried foam it is hard and water resistant and even conducts electricity.
The project makes use of machine learning to exclude superfluous materials and processes, thanks to which the development work is considerably accelerated, says postdoctoral researcher Juha Koivisto. The most unexpected feature of the foam is its edibility.
‘The method can be used to make foam out of powdered carrots, cowberries, cranberries or beetroot, and that can be further processed into crisps which resemble potato crisps,’ says Koivisto.
Several technologies can be used to make foam. Paper manufacturing technologies can be used to produce a desired thickness, but the method is slow. Extrusion or 3D printing produces hard, elongated bubbles for a strong, baton-like structure.
‘On the basis of existing data, AI makes suggestions on how we could add the desired property into the material with the least effort,’ Koivisto adds.
The project has received funding from Business Finland to look for commercial applications and markets for the new material. Commercial production and use as packaging, for example, requires that the foam is truly biodegradable and cheap and that it can be produced in considerable quantities. ‘In tons and tons’ is the expression used by Alanko in the Finnish version of the news release.
The foam can also be used as insulation material in construction, being light in weight, heat-insulating and strong. It is water-resistant and therefore fire-safe.
The foam is very similar to cork, but is tens of times lighter.