CU-Boulder Researchers Using Solid Waste For New 'Green' Building Panel Materials

Published: March 17, 2008

A University of Colorado architecture professor and her team are using "reverse engineering" computer technology on the Boulder campus to help them design and build high-performance, insulated building panels using cellulose diverted from Colorado's growing waste stream.

The team is using computer modeling software to help choose the best combination of cellulose -- primarily paper, cardboard and agricultural and wood waste -- that can be converted into large, molded panels, said Professor Julee Herdt of CU's College of Architecture and Planning. A licensed architect who teaches undergraduate courses at CU-Boulder and graduate courses at CU-Denver, Herdt is using software provided by CU-Boulder's aerospace engineering sciences department to help develop a new generation of panels for exterior and interior use on buildings.

The team is refining a panel system made from cellulose products and soy foam known as BioSIPs, pioneered by Herdt several years ago and used by CU's Solar Decathlon team in 2005 to build its national championship-winning solar house, which was displayed on the Washington, D.C. Mall. The new-generation BioSIPs product will consist of 4-foot-by 10-foot corrugated fiber cores, each 4 inches-to-6 inches thick, encapsulated by an insulating, soy-based foam that together will form a modular wall and roof system, she said.

Funded by a two-year, $245,000 State of Colorado Advanced Technology Fund Research Grant, the team is using computers and physical models to help them create the "perfect balance" of thickness and strength for the new-generation BioSIPs, said Herdt. "We tell the computer the types of cellulose waste materials we are interested in using and how we want the panels to perform, and the software helps us test our ideas," she said.

"The end result will be a cost effective, fire-retardant building material with a structural core material diverted entirely from Colorado's waste stream for use in building streamlined, energy efficient homes," she said. Herdt is working with graduate architecture student Kellen Schauermann on the BioSIPs product, which has been patented through CU's Technology Transfer Office.

"The beauty of the molded fiber technology is that we can use all sorts of waste paper, much of which has low market value, to create a high performance building product," she said. "Low-grade waste like the cardboard used to package items like cereal and soft drinks, for example, can be combined with higher-grade fibers like cardboard boxes to create the BioSIPs building panel."

In theory, the team can use almost any cellulose-based product for panel construction, from recycled newspaper to waste wood, said Herdt. "There are a lot of sources for cellulose out there, including construction waste wood, which is hard to get rid of in Colorado. This grant from the state of Colorado supports our research in diverting waste materials that might otherwise be a disposal problem."

The BioSIPs team will use the finished panels to build a 10-foot-by 10-foot-by-10-foot structure at the recently established University of Colorado Center for Innovation and Creativity located near CU-Boulder's East Campus, she said. The test structure will be powered by solar power and researchers will monitor its energy efficiency.

The BioSIPs panels are being designed to snap together "edge-to-edge," making them easy, fast and cost-efficient to install. The team is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory on BioSIPs research and development and will work with Simpson Strong-Tie -- an international building connector system firm headquartered in San Francisco -- on the design of "cam-lock" fasteners for the modular panels.

Herd and Schauermann also are collaborating with a team of undergraduates at CU-Boulder's Leeds School of Business on an entrepreneurship project to create a business plan to market and sell the BioSIPs product. CU's Wolf Law School faculty and students have helped set up the BioSIPs business, she said. The CU-BioSIPs team will present the finished business plan to local companies and "eco-entrepreneurs."

CU-Boulder's College of Environmental Design merged with CU-Denver's School of Architecture and Planning in 1992.