Plant-based building materials boost energy savings up to 20 percent, UNT researchers find

Monday, September 29, 2014 - 14:39

DENTON (UNT), Texas — University of North Texas researchers discovered that plant-based building materials can provide up to 20 percent energy savings, reduce energy consumption and the overall carbon footprint compared with synthetic building materials currently on the market.

The finding comes as scientists around the world are turning to plants as a resource for biodegradable, renewable and environmentally friendly products and materials that can reduce landfill waste, help the environment and cause little to no damage to natural ecosystems.

”Today, many buildings are constructed with wood and Styrofoam panels,” said Nandika D’Souza, a professor in UNT’s College of Engineering who led the study to develop kenaf-based building materials with grant funding from the National Science Foundation. “Wood takes 12 years to grow, but kenaf only takes nine months. So, not only are we helping preserve wood, a valuable resource, but we also use less water to grow and create the kenaf-based materials.” 

During a three-year period, UNT researchers developed and tested structural insulated panel building materials made from kenaf, a plant in the hibiscus family that is similar to bamboo. Kenaf fibers are an attractive prospect because they offer the same strength-to-weight ratio as glass fibers. 

Their studies show that the kenaf materials, including composite panels, provide up to 20 percent energy savings compared to fiberglass or steel and Styrofoam products. As a result, energy consumption and overall carbon footprint is reduced.

The building materials were tested in 2012 at UNT’s Zero Energy Laboratory, the only laboratory of its kind in Texas and a testing ground for current and future sustainable materials and technologies. The Zero Energy Laboratory is managed by UNT Engineering Professor Yong Tao, who has more than 20 years of experience in researching energy engineering, thermal sciences and renewable energy sources. Tao also is director of UNT’s PACCAR Technology Institute.

A low-cost process to prepare kenaf for use as a building material was developed by UNT Associate Professor of Biology Brian Ayre and Michael Allen, a professor at the UNT Health Science Center. The process involved soaking kenaf fibers in a microbial solution. The microbes naturally dissolved everything but the necessary plant materials. 

Researchers found that using the microbial solution minimized water absorption and created a 40-percent increase in mechanical properties over steam-processing the plant fibers, a common alternative used to create other plant fiber products.

“The development of natural fiber alternatives to fiberglass, and plant-modified structural foam, offers a zero volatile compound option for home, automotive and consumer applications,” D’Souza said.

The cross-disciplinary collaboration was key to this breakthrough, D’Souza said.

“None of this could have been possible without the genuine recognition of intellectual value between our plant biologists, construction engineers, materials, mechanical and energy engineers,” she said.

During the course of the project, the research team created and hosted outreach camps for students in fourth through 12th grades, while advising UNT undergraduate and graduate students who were involved in the research work.  

D’Souza and her research team have been studying kenaf as an alternative to glass and other synthetic fibers for nearly 10 years. D’Souza’s research, which spans industries from pharmaceuticals to aircraft manufacturing, focuses on how new and sustainable materials can be brought together to become stronger and more effective. 

Take a virtual tour of UNT’s Zero Energy Laboratory online

UNT News Service
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