Tuskegee touts Dr. George Washington Carver's innovations that revolutionized agriculture, among other industries. Carver's representation as a Black scientist inspired Curry to go into plastic materials research, he said.
Like Carver, Curry's inspiration also comes from materials produced by "Mother Nature," he said, "which produces cellulose … one of the most abundant renewable resources on the planet."
But, Curry said, cellulose in plastic composites aren't on the market yet because the material is known to be "hard to work with."
"Cellulose is one of the polymers that don't play well with … the types of solvents and polymers being used in the industry," he said.
Curry and his team came up with — and recently received a patent for — a method to combine cellulose with petroleum-based materials to create composites that break down faster than traditional plastic materials.
"Our discovery made it play well with the solvents and the polymers, which gives us an advantage to explore the properties that are going to come forth from combining them," he said. "By putting the cellulose inside of current polymers, it gives us an idea of how they break down and if they can be recyclable and renewable.
Instead of taking decades to even start to break down, Curry said, Tuskegee's polymer blends start to break down in 10-15 days.
Tuskegee was also granted a patent for a fully bio-based plastic using the cellulose with other biopolymers like polylactic acid, another plant-based polymer. These plastics will "totally" break down "under certain conditions," Curry said.
"[The materials] could be used in many products," he said. "If you can adjust the specs of the plastic just right with the cellulose, it could be used to make bottles, plastic, containers, silverware, any plastic item you can think of.
"That opens the door for a wide variety of opportunities," Curry said, including the use of cellulose in the development of high-temperature-resistant plastics, which his team is currently working on.
Curry and his team are also developing a way to use cellulose as a gas-capturing medium using low-temperature plasma to modify the surface of the cellulose material.
Cellulose could be used in both of the new applications "to create some kind of mass remediation or capturing system and remove carbon dioxide out of the air," he said. "It would naturally grab carbon dioxide out of the air, store it and later on we could retransport the carbon dioxide into something like water … and recycle it for some other kind of energy use."
Curry hopes the adoption of cellulose in plastic materials and beyond creates an awareness of technology and innovations from HBCUs, he added.
"There's a lot of innovation taking place at HBCUs," Curry said. "It takes a diverse set of minds at the table to solve a problem. … Often we forget having a diverse pool of innovations … makes things really beneficial for communities.
"HBCUs have the ability to offer the industry a different look at their processes, products and day-to-day business," he added. "[They] can offer that fresh look, that new design, that new approach."