Royal Society Award for alternative recyclable MDF

Furniture constructed from the new, recyclable MDF alternative.

The Royal Society has awarded scientist Professor Andrew Abbott with a cash prize for his ‘innovative’ biodegradable and recyclable form of medium density fibreboard (MDF).

MDF is typically made by breaking down bits of wood into wood fibres, which are then pressurised and stuck together with resin and wax. The resin is currently composed of urea and formaldehyde (UF), the use of which is restricted due to carcinogenic health concerns.

Professor Abbott, and his team at the Department of Chemistry at Leicester University, won the Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation 2013 for the development of a new wood-based product similar to traditional MDF that avoids the use of UF.

Instead of UF, the ‘sustainable’ MDF uses a ‘resin based on starch’ from natural sources (such as potatoes) in its production, making it recyclable and compostable.

Using the £172,347 cash prize, Professor Abbott will now work with colleagues at the Biocomposites Centre, Bangor University, the Leicestershire-based retail design company Sheridan and Co, and Norbord, to ‘create a supply chain to create prototypes for the point-of-sale retail market’.

Benefits of new material

The material was reportedly developed in response to the fact that traditional MDF cannot be recycled, and often is incinerated or ends up in landfill.

Indeed, approximately one million tonnes of MDF are used in the UK every year and in a 2009 report, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) stated that ‘conservative estimates’ suggested over 150,000 tons of MDF waste were either disposed of in landfill sites or burnt without energy recovery from the UK furniture sector alone.

The recyclable MDF therefore aims to ‘reduce the problem of future waste’ and  ‘help an industry [the retail industry] criticised for the amount of waste it generates’.

Speaking to Resource, Professor Abbott said that as well as being recyclable, he MDF alternative is compostable, and that he had himself composted the material ‘at home in [his] own compost bins’.

Furthermore, the new material is reportedly ‘easier to manufacture’ than existing MDF as the components are ‘pre-mixed and only set on the application of heat and pressure’, and end user feedback suggests it is also ‘easier to work with’ than currently available MDF boards.

Abbott and his group at Leicester University reportedly stumbled across the solution to making sustainable MDF while developing another solution: “We have a large research effort in sustainable materials at the University of Leicester. We look at a number of large use materials where there are environmental issues associated with their manufacture, use or disposal. One of our projects was developing new plastics based on starch. We use salts to turn crystalline starch into an amorphous thermoplastic. An obvious and successful off-shoot from this was to use the plastics to bind together wood fibres and make MDF.”

Product could ‘revolutionise industries dependent on MDF’

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

Professor Anthony Cheetham, Vice President and Treasurer of the Royal Society added: “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.”


Find out more aboutthe Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation 2013.