Over my 35-year career in the panel lamination industry, I’ve seen many innovative materials get stuck in what I call the “chicken-or-egg” loop. For a new material to become accepted in the marketplace, it must first be proven effective in widespread application. However, to get the product into widespread application, it must first be accepted in the marketplace. So, what needs to happen first? When no one takes that first step to change either mindset or materials, a promising product becomes irrelevant.
Call it circular logic or a Catch 22 but this vicious cycle of hesitation seems to be keeping magnesium oxide board (MgO board) from truly taking off in the United States. And that’s too bad because I believe MgO board presents one of the best opportunities for wall and ceiling applications: It’s non-toxic, naturally resistant to fire, water, and impact; and increases the R value in any panel application.
In this article, I’ll share the facts on MgO board while exploring some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding this material.
The History Of MgOWhile MgO board was developed for the construction industry just a few decades ago, magnesium oxide itself is far from new: It was the primary material used in constructing the Great Wall of China.
MgO board has been much more widely accepted in Europe and Asia construction where it has been a standard panel sheathing material for years. Recently, the world’s second tallest building, the Taipei 101 in Taiwan, utilized magnesium oxide in both the interior and exterior wall sheathing and subfloor sheathing. Here in the U.S., MgO became UL-approved and cleared for construction in 2003. A handful of builders currently utilize MgO board in coastal regions due to its mold- and insect-repellent properties and strength that stands up to hurricane-type conditions. North America has also seen its fair share of MgO board construction.
AttributesMagnesium oxide is a naturally occurring mineral that is very abundant globally. It is silvery white in its raw form, and becomes a soft gray during processing. MgO is completely free of toxins, including formaldehyde, silica, asbestos, heavy metals, and organic solvents.
As for performance, MgO is a very resistant material. Insects and mold can’t grow on it. It’s also sturdy enough to withstand serious impacts and elemental threats (water and fire). I like to point out that the Great Wall is still standing, right? One manufacturer has also performed freeze-thaw along with fire-endurance testing to meet AC386 and UL-E119, ICC criteria.
How Mgo is UsedThe primary use for MgO board has been as a sheathing material and also for skins used in foam core structural insulated panels. Currently, SIPs are gaining in popularity for commercial building applications, as well as residential. In SIPs applications, it can be painted, drilled or nailed into. MgO is most typically used with an expanded polystyrene core although extruded polystyrene is also an acceptable substrate.
Now that we’ve reviewed the material, I’d like to shift focus to the current mindset in regards to MgO board.
Green BuildingThese days, everyone is focused on green building. That’s where MgO board in a SIPs application has great potential. First, MgO SIPs panels are produced in an energy-efficient manner. MgO panel production requires no high-energy heat treatment. As mentioned before, MgO panels do not contain any toxic materials and when constructed with XPS or EPS substrates, deliver a high R value. They also boast a longer life-cycle, thereby decreasing waste.
The Delicate China IssueOne of the major mindset challenges facing MgO board acceptance is the China situation. Unfortunately, the fact that magnesium oxide is mined in China gives it an unfair disadvantage as a viable material. However, we must remember that legitimate MgO suppliers in China are subject to the same inspections U.S.-produced products are before being imported. After arriving in America, MgO board is then laminated to various cores and substrates by American companies. I don’t think a raw material should be judged based upon where it is from. I compare it to diamonds: While they’re mined outside the United States, American jewelry companies are responsible for the setting, design, and ultimately delivering a quality end product.
Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3While MgO board has been extensively tested by manufacturers to meet U.S. standards along with ICC building codes, there has also been limited testing done by DragonBoard on SIPs that incorporate MgO board as a surface material. For the MgO board evolutionary cycle, suppliers, builders, and even end consumers are realizing the benefits of the material for the SIPs industry.
The Learning CurveAnother hurdle MgO board faces is acceptance by the building community. There’s a learning curve when working with any new material, and in today’s tough economy, many are unwilling to expend a little extra time or money to get past that learning curve. However, the payoff when working with MgO board-especially in a SIPs application-is that construction is expedited, and you can earn that time and money back. For example, when MgO SIPs are used instead of conventional stick construction for residential home additions, the room can be erected within two days instead of two weeks.
MgO board also offers time and cost savings when it’s the skin material on both sides of a SIPs panel. That’s because MgO board is highly adaptable: On the wall interior, it’s ready to be finished with joint compound or paint. The exterior is also immediately ready for painting, EIFS, brick or siding.