This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project aims to create multilayered panels of microcellular recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET). Today's $1.44 billion wall paneling and decorative tile market is increasingly focused on sustainable and energy-efficient building materials. This project will explore the feasibility of continuously producing thick solid-state microcellular plastic panels from RPET feedstock with thermal insulation properties comparable to or better than existing materials. Solid-state microcellular RPET foams provide high strength and do not require chemical blowing agents, which contain volatile organic compounds. PET is the most recycled plastic in the United States. However, of the 2.3 billions pounds of water bottles collected annually in the US, only 24% are currently recycled. Building materials made from RPET could utilize this untapped source and in turn, could be recycled again. We will develop a process for continuous production of solid-state microcellular RPET panels by fusion bonding microcellular foam rolls. The proposed approach to fusion bond flexible, thin foam layers into thicker panels will eliminate the need for bonding adhesive. Prototype panels of 0.25" thickness will be created. Technical data will be collected during this project, enabling a detailed commercial feasibility and process cost modeling exercise.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project will be to satisfy the construction industry's rapidly growing need for lightweight and energy-efficient panels based on green building materials. The proposed microcellular RPET panels are targeted for use in wall panel and decorative tile applications. Compared to current materials the advantages of these panels include a lower cost, reduced material consumption, a lower weight, high energy efficiency, high recycled content, a high-quality surface finish and their compatibility with end-of-life recycling. The proposed research will focus on using RPET as the raw material due to the immediate positive environmental and economic impacts. The proposed innovation is expected to increase the use of RPET in high-value applications, thereby providing economic stimulus to the recycling industry. The proposed research will enable expanding the application frontiers for solid-state microcellular plastics technology and enable collaborative research to develop further markets for these lightweight materials in other industries such as transportation, maritime, etc. Furthermore, new technology resulting from this research will preserve resources for a sustainable environment, enhance the competitiveness of US plastics industry, and create new job opportunities that will benefit society as a whole.