Buildings that store carbon? UB-led team lands $2.2 million grant to develop eco-friendly insulation

The project team. Left to right: Jin Young Song (UB), Shenqiang Ren (UB), Jason Armstrong (UB), Nicholas Yardy (CleanFiber), Chi Zhou (UB) and Jongmin Shim (UB). Not pictured: André Desjarlais (Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

The team will research insulation that incorporates silica aerogel developed by UB researchers, along with plant-based products

Release Date: July 13, 2022

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Portrait of Shenqiang Ren in a suit.
“The development of these resilient building materials for new construction or retrofitting existing buildings could assist communities in withstanding extreme environments. ”
Shenqiang Ren, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and of chemistry, and a core faculty member in the RENEW Institute
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A University at Buffalo-led research team will seek to develop eco-friendly insulation materials through a new $2.2 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The grant is part of the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere (HESTIA) program, which recently announced $39 million in awards to multiple institutions to advance technologies that can transform buildings into net carbon storage structures.

The UB-led team will research carbon-storing drywall that incorporates silica aerogel developed by UB researchers, along with either a recycled cellulose product developed by regional company CleanFiber, or straw.

The cellulose product and straw store embodied carbon as they come from plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while photosynthesizing. The combination of plant-based materials with the aerogel is also expected to reduce carbon emissions by providing extremely effective insulation, thereby increasing the energy efficiency of structures by reducing heating and cooling needs, says UB science and engineering researcher Shenqiang Ren, PhD, who is leading the effort.

If successful, he adds, the project could help to accelerate the adoption of cost-effective carbon-storing insulation in place of less energy-efficient materials in construction and renovation of a variety of structures.

“The carbon-storing superinsulation plant-based and aerogel materials developed in this project aim to advance energy-efficient building technologies to power carbon net-zero climate goals. The development of these resilient building materials for new construction or retrofitting existing buildings could assist communities in withstanding extreme environments,” says Ren, a professor in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and UB Department of Chemistry, and a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute.

“Our team brings together expertise from the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, UB College of Arts and Sciences and the UB School of Architecture and Planning, and partners including CleanFiber and Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Ren adds. “We are thrilled to be part of ARPA-E’s HESTIA program to realize the ambitious goal of transforming buildings into net carbon storage structures.”

Ren notes that the team aims to develop a combination of materials in the form of modular drywall panels that can be produced at low cost through low-energy processes, and that could potentially be assembled by robots during construction.

The collaboration between UB and CleanFiber, which developed its Buffalo manufacturing base several years ago after winning an award in the 43North startup competition, demonstrates how university innovations can spark research partnerships that help to build the region’s technology economy.

“Up-cycling today’s consumer and agricultural waste streams into high-performance carbon-sequestering building products for tomorrow’s structures will be a game changer in reducing the carbon footprint of homes and offices nationwide. Combining the visionary innovation from Dr. Ren’s laboratory with the scale and productive capacity of industrial ventures accelerates the pace of R&D on novel symbiotic technology,” says Nicholas Yardy, PhD, CleanFiber’s chief technology officer.

The interdisciplinary team includes:

  • Shenqiang Ren, PhD, UB professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and of chemistry, and a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute;
  • Jason Armstrong, PhD, UB associate professor of teaching in mechanical and aerospace engineering;
  • Jongmin Shim, PhD, UB associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering;
  • Jin Young Song, UB associate professor of architecture;
  • Chi Zhou, PhD, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering;
  • Nicholas Yardy, PhD, CleanFiber chief technology officer; and
  • André Desjarlais at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

 

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