New Recyclable MDF Developed in UK

Natural sources including potatoes help to create new award-winning product

Published in the February 2014 Issue Published online: Feb 20, 2014
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A new biodegradable and recyclable form of medium density fiberboard (MDF) has been created that could dramatically reduce the problem of future waste. Andrew Abbott, a professor at the University of Leicester in Leicester, U.K., was awarded on Oct. 31 with the 2013 Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation that will help him make the critical step from prototype to product.

MDF is a cheap and popular engineered wood product widely used for furniture and other products in homes, offices and retail businesses. However, as MDF cannot be recycled, waste MDF either has to be incinerated or ends up in landfills.

Abbott and his team at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Leicester have developed a new wood-based product similar to MDF that uses a resin based on starch from potatoes and other completely natural sources.

Anthony Cheetham, vice president and treasurer of the Royal Society said, “It is impressive to see someone take a material that is commonplace in all of our homes and solve its key limitations. Professor Abbott has managed to re-invent MDF, transforming it into a product that has much more relevance in an environmentally conscious society.”

A significant proportion of MDF is used for short-term applications in the retail sector. The use of a material which can either be recycled or composted would be a significant benefit to an industry often criticized for the amount of waste it generates.

MDF is made by breaking down bits of wood into wood fibers, which are then pressurized and stuck together with resin and wax. Most resin is currently composed of urea and formaldehyde (UF), the use of which is restricted due to health concerns. Abbott’s new resin means that the use of UF can be avoided and therefore so are its associated concerns.

With the aid of colleagues at the Biocomposites Centre, Bangor University and retail design company Sheridan and Co., Abbott’s team has produced potato starch-based boards which have been made into retail display units.

The new material is easier to manufacture than existing MDF, as the components are easily pre-mixed and only set on the application of heat and pressure. Feedback suggests it is also easier to work with than currently available MDF boards.

“The Brian Mercer Award is fundamental in enabling us to take this project forward to the next stage,” said Abbott. “It means we can now scale up our process from laboratory to the full-scale manufacture of a product that I hope will revolutionize industries dependent on MDF and provide them with a more environmentally-friendly alternative.”

Professor Abbott will receive £172,347 ($275,634.20 U.S.), which will be used to bring the four collaborators together to create a supply chain to create prototypes for the point-of-sale market. The Brian Mercer Award for Innovation is a means for scientists who wish to develop an already proven concept or prototype into a near-market product ready for commercial exploitation.