Research project turns waste into sound-absorbing solutions with biodegradable foam

Circular Panels represents a cross-disciplinary effort to capitalize on the sound dampening properties of bio-foam while adhering to circular economy principles
A man holding two small foam boards stands in a lab room.
Postdoctoral researcher Tero Mäkinen is the co-founder of Circular Panels—a project based on technology developed by the Complex Systems and Materials research group at the Department of Applied Physics. Photo: Gavin Pugh/Aalto University

Weaning off global petroleum consumption is no small task. Its industrial applications are ubiquitous, but green innovations abound in the race to curb the worst effects of an ever-warming planet.

What if companies took these innovations a step further by not only cleaning up the manufacturing of products, but by also rethinking their source? This is the strategy of Circular Panels, one of the latest projects to come out of Aalto University.

As the name suggests, the group bases its business practices on the circular economy, where the whole lifecycle of any given product is considered with scrutiny. In the case of Circular Panels, they have built a sound-insulating bio-foam.

‘Through fine tuning, we have realized a foam with sound dampening properties comparable to glass wool, but our product is biodegradable and compostable,’ says Tero Mäkinen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Applied Physics and co-founder of Circular Panels.

Square piece of a circular panel material
Photo: Anne Kinnunen / Aalto University

The group exploits existing wood pulping processes—simultaneously cutting out the middleman and bringing new life to a material otherwise seen as waste. Whereas some green alternatives to everyday products may require resource-intensive materials sourcing, Circular Panels’ approach improves upon its petroleum-based counterpart at nearly every step of production. 

‘We start with cellulose fibers that we recover from the side streams of certain industrial wood processing operations. We then create a wet foam that is dried and modified to provide the performance outcomes we desire,’ Mäkinen says. 

The result is a lightweight wall panel with customizable surface patterns. The group has even begun collaborating with Finnish companies like Martela and Vallilla to develop pilot products.

The Circular Panels project is presently funded through the summer of 2024. Mäkinen said the group’s next goal is to secure necessary startup funding to expand the production capabilities by building a pilot line.

Current Circular Panels commercial partners include Ikea, Martela, Metsä, Vallila, and Woodio. Circular Panels is the product of collaboration across Aalto University’s schools of science, business, and arts. 

This project is based on technology developed by the Complex Systems and Materials research group at Aalto University’s Department of Applied Physics, headed by Professor Mikko Alava. Circular Panels is part of the Research to Business program funded by Business Finland.

Circular Panels will be at Aalto's booth at Slush on December 1, 2023. At Slush, Aalto will also present other ambitious solutions for health and well-being challenges, imaging, energy storage, sustainable design, and nutrient recycling.

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Complex Systems and Materials (CSM)

Applies statistical physics to a wide variety of cross-disciplinary topics.

Department of Applied Physics
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