Turning Agricultural Waste Into Stronger Plastics

Technology developed by researchers at North Dakota State University (NDSU), Fargo, incorporates would-be agricultural waste products into plastics, making them stronger and more resistant to heat and ultraviolet light (UV).

The new plastic products can be used anywhere commodity thermoplastics are typically used, says Chad Ulven, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at NDSU, who developed the technology. Examples of commodity thermoplastics, also known as commodity plastics, are polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and polyethylene.

Often, these polymers are used to make products such as polythene bags, agricultural equipmentfood packaging, disposable drinking cups, and window or wire insulation. However, Ulven has been focusing on using the technology to make parts in agricultural equipment, such as interior/exterior handles, consoles, protective shrouds, and under-the-hood belt guards, reports Prairie Business Magazine.

The agricultural products that are used in the technology are currently considered waste: animal feed/bedding, and low-cost combustion byproducts for heat energy. But when they are used in the technology, they replace the costs and need for petroleum-based polymers.

A startup company, c2renew, based in Colfax, N.D., has recently been established to market and develop the technology. The company also has recently established a licensing agreement with the NDSU Research Foundation for the technology.

“Six years ago, it was my vision from the start to see my research end up in a company located in North Dakota which supplies renewable based materials to a variety of molding companies, benefits agricultural producers and is staffed with engineers who want to stay in this region with high-tech, well-paid positions,” Ulven says.

Ulven and his research team use lignocellulosic fibers from the agricultural feedstock and mix it with the thermoplastics to reinforce and strengthen them. Prairie Business Magazine explains further:

This method works with virgin and recycled commodity and engineered thermoplastics such as polyolefins and polyamides, respectively, where other natural fiber reinforcing processes have not succeeded, according to Ulven, who also serves as chief technology officer for c2renew.

The research team has shown that the agricultural fibers improve the stiffness, strength, heat stability, dimensional tolerance, and resistance to UV exposure, while lowering the cost of the end product, it claims. The company has conducted trials with several global agricultural, heavy equipment, and motor vehicle manufacturers to find out how the new plastics can perform in different applications.

“c2renew designs biocomposite materials to meet the performance specifications required by our customers with lower cost, renewable resources,” Ulven says. “We not only supply companies with drop-in plastic replacement solutions, but also assist them with component and process design.”

Source: “Start-up company developed from NDSU research discovery,” Prairie Business Magazine, 10/10/12
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