Biopolymers and Biocomposites Workshop Brings Together Industry and Researchers

Getting researchers of biopolymers and biocomposites and those who design products using them into the same room was an educational experience for those participating in the Midwest Biopolymers and Biocomposites Workshop May 11 at Iowa State University.
“The great amount of interaction between industrial participants and academia made the workshop a great success. We had meetings that ran into the evening after the workshop and have had many follow-up inquiries,” said David Grewell, Iowa State professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and workshop coordinator.
The 94 participants were nearly equally divided between those from industry and academia. Speakers from commercial groups alternated with those from the research laboratory.
Anil Netravali of Cornell University started things off with an overview of the status and future of green composites. He said research in his lab has produced biocomposites that are stronger than existing materials, for example soy composites that can replace two by four lumber used in structures with one by one composite boards.
Craig Shore, founder of Creative Composites Ltd., spoke of his company’s acoustic door that incorporates such natural products as kenaf, hemp and flax. Applying the latest research to find possible new products motivated him to participate in the workshop.
“One of the exciting things with the workshop is to see what research is going on and what potential next steps there could be,” he said. “We’re always looking for products that we could move into more biobased. If we know where the research is going now, that might help us identify more opportunities.”
Products made from composites are expanding beyond building applications, according to presenters at the workshop.
Grewell presented the results of work with plastics made from blends of zein, a corn protein, and soybean protein. His team developed products such as wrapping for large bales of hay, lubrication sticks for use on train locomotives and pots for transplanting plants that would biodegrade in the soil and provide nutrients for the growing plant.
When marketing biobased products, manufacturers should be careful not to oversell the environmental benefits of the products, according to Ramani Narayan, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University. He advised using biodegradability information based in science and generally accepted standards to counter misleading or deceptive claims.
A variety of biobased plastics, rubbers, composites and coatings are being studied by Richard Larock, distinguished professor of chemistry at Iowa State. He said that bioplastics from natural oils have been improved by adding fillers, some from agricultural commodities, that reinforce the mechanical properties and increase thermal stability.
The many potential products and uses helped build the industry presence at the workshop, according to Grewell.“The level of interest in bioplastics by industries reflects the fact that these materials are no longer a dream but are now reality,” he added.
The workshop was sponsored by the Center for Crops Utilization Research, Bioeconomy Institute, Center for Industrial Research and Service, Iowa Department of Economic Development, and Institute for Physical Research and Technology.