If researchers at Iowa State University have their way, bioplastics soon will join corn, soybeans and oats as one of the state's top agricultural exports.
Iowa State's Biopolymers & Biocomposites Research Team has developed proteins based on corn, soybeans and sorghum that can be converted into plastics. These products and other bioplastics efforts were on display at the university's booth at NPE2009 in Chicago.
One of our driving forces has been that people have developed a conscience toward the environment, assistant professor David Grewell said.
Iowa State's bioplastics are based on long-molecule technology, which imparts strength to parts. To date, the materials have been tested successfully in injection molding, compression molding and blown film. Applications include planting pots and hay bale wrappers, most of which will biodegrade within two to three months after being placed in a landfill, Grewell added.
The university also is field-testing lubrication sticks with Creative Composites Ltd., a maker of biocomposite products in Brooklyn, Iowa, and is supplying several hundred pounds of material each month to Soy Works Corp., a bioplastics firm in Woodridge, Ill. Soy Works has licensed some of the university's technology and plans to add its own production at sites in Iowa and Wisconsin by the end of the year, company President and CEO Roy Taylor said in a telephone interview.
There's been a very significant uptick in interest in all bioplastics, partly because of the [Obama] administration's commitment to the greening of American industry, Taylor said. We've got a good cost structure and are more competitive than other bioplastics. We're sitting at the crest of a wave and hoping to catch it.
Taylor added that production of SoyPlus-brand bioplastics based on Iowa State technology could exceed 500,000 pounds next year. Soy Works is negotiating with makers of animal products and packaging materials and is seeking out additional technology partners as well.
Other firms working with Iowa State to develop bioplastics include window and door manufacturer Pella Corp., manufacturing and technology giant Emerson Electric Co. and Vermeer Corp., a maker of farm machinery and production equipment.
The Iowa State program also is part of the university's Center for Crops Utilization Research. In a news release, CCUR director Larry Johnson said the center's focus over time has shifted from adhesives to plastics.
We realized we could not eat our way out of a surplus of corn and soybeans, he said. To make an impact, we knew we needed to look into bio-based products.
The program continues to work on adhesives and coatings, and even has developed a sprayable bioplastic foumulation, according to Grewell. Iowa State researchers also are aware that cost plays a big role in the future of bioplastics.
We tell our students all the time that our products can't be 1 cent more expensive than current materials, Grewell said. There was a lot of interest last summer when oil was near $150 [per barrel], and some of that has continued through a government emphasis on bio-preferred products. But oil has to be above $70 for bioplastics to be competitive.
In addition to bioplastics, the Iowa State research team is working to polymerize renewable oils and develop cellulosic-based composites.
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