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updated 9/28/2012 3:21:12 PM ET 2012-09-28T19:21:12

IKEA and other furniture makers often use particle board, which is cheaper and more easily cut than regular wood. But even though the board can be made from sawmill waste, it isn't perfect: Particle board doesn't do well when wet, for example.

Researchers at VTT Technical Research Center of Finland have hit on an alternative: a kitchen furniture material, called a biocomposite, from plastic polymers reinforced with natural fibers. Like particle board, it is a composite material, but in this case the use of the polymer allows it to be molded. Particle board, on the other hand, has to be cut (just like regular wood) and there is some waste from the scraps.

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VTT Research Professor Ali Harlin told Discovery News that the frames for kitchen furniture were made with recycled polypropylene. Harlin noted that in Finland, the recycled polypropylene was a cheaper and more available material.

Theoretically, there are several types of polymer that could be used this way, but which one depends on local supply, he said. The biocomposite is also resistant to water damage because the polymer forms a thin sheet on the surface. Unlike particle board, it would feel smooth to the touch, Harlin said. The natural fibers can be sawdust, pulp, flax, hemp or peat. Harlin said in this case the team used waste from sawmills -- wood.

Taken together, the components reduce the carbon footprint of furniture production over the life cycle of the material, because both are not only available locally, but also recycled.

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The new material is stronger than particle board and is also more resistant to moisture -- wet particle board loses strength and becomes useless quickly. There's also less discharge of formaldehyde, which has been a concern in the past, since particle board sometimes gives off small amounts.

via VTT Technical Research Center

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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