After displaying its bio-based plant containers at NPE2012 in Orlando, Iowa State University biopolymers and biocomposites researchers returned home to make up another 6,000 pots for beta testing this summer.
“We shipped them to 10 different vendors for beta testing,” said David Grewell, head of the research team and an associate professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.
The small containers, produced from natural proteins, carbohydrates, oils and low-cost natural fibers, can be used to replace petroleum-based containers and will degrade harmlessly when planted in a garden, he said. One other advantage is that the protein-based containers also fertilize the soil as they degrade.
The containers will be evaluated by the end of the summer. Researchers plan to make and test larger pots the following summer, in 10-, 12- and 14-inch sizes.
The research team includes 15 Iowa State professors and about 50 graduate students from a range of disciplines. The program began in 1995. A $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and matching funds from industry last year are helping to fund continuing research on container design and resin formulation.
Early trials have been promising, he said, providing greener and healthier plants one month after they are transplanted into the garden. The researchers hope their efforts will lead to industrial collaborations to get the product, and others, on the market.
The group is also working on many other projects. For example, a drug-delivery system has cleared its hurdles and is waiting for the drug to be re-evaluated and approved. The group also is testing lawn-care items.
Another group in the Iowa State team is making progress using carbon fibers made from low-cost, lignin-based polymer blends for wind turbine blades.
Mike Kessler, an associate professor of material science and engineering, is leading the project that uses lignin, a byproduct of the wood-pulping process. His group is chemically modifying and blending the lignin with biopolymers such as polylactic acid resin.
The material is being developed for wind energy, but has potential in other industries, such as automotive, where stronger and lighter parts are needed for weight reduction.
Iowa State's research group also is working on a “polymers environmental calculator,” a Web-based application to help determine the economic viability of bioplastics. The app should be ready June 1, Grewell said. The group also is putting together a video to illustrate how to use the program. The video is aimed at resin producers, manufacturers and end users.
The calculator will allow users to compare processing costs, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to find a plastic that minimizes costs and environmental impact. It will look at the direct costs of 12 common petroleum and bio-based plastics and allow for data from other plastics.
The team is partnering with Clinton, Mass.-based manufacturer Nypro Inc. and M-Base Engineering + Software GmbH, an Aachen, Germany-based data management software company, to make the application available to the plastics industry.