Not long ago, I took the teenager to an Orange Leaf frozen yogurt shop. It was kind of bizarre, facing off against a bank of machines dispensing flavors like birthday cake and lychee. I think the kid got a bit of every kind. He didn’t finish.
What this has to do with Iowa science is the shovel-like plastic spoon I used. I happened to look at the back of the handle and saw something surprising.
“Biodegradable” was stamped onto it. Going back nearly 20 years, I’ve been hearing about plant-based, biodegradable plastics – bioplastics – that can break down, leaving less behind in the landfill. Not quite Willy Wonka’s edible dishes, but less polluting. This is the first time I had knowingly used a bioplastic spoon.
Bioplastics are made from natural materials like plant starches and proteins instead of petroleum plastics. There also are biocomposites, the natural doppelgangers of materials like carbon-fiber composites used in aircraft and high-tech auto bodies. Biocomposites combine plant fibers with plant-based resins.
If bioplastic utensils are a rarity, David Grewell says, it’s because bioplastics represent a small percentage of the total plastics market. Grewell, an agriculture and biosystems engineering professor, directs Iowa State University’s Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team. The problem isn’t necessarily that bioplastics can’t compete, he says. It’s mostly that few companies have adopted or commercialized the technology.
Last month, the BBRT got a grant that could help address that problem. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry/University Cooperative Research program is designed to connect universities with companies that would support their research and commercialize the results.
ISU will run the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2) in partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. NSF provides expertise and matching support for at least the first five years.
Bioplastics and biocomposites, of course, are a big deal for Iowa because they provide new markets for corn, soybeans and other crops. There are some plant-based bioplastics on the market, Grewell says, including food packaging like bags for fresh greens, and trash bags. And there’s a Nevada company that will insulate your home with a soy-based foam. But bioplastics aren’t yet consuming corn and soybeans the way ethanol and biodiesel are.
Grewell and the BBRT are working on more products to expand the possibilities. For instance, he and colleagues William Graves and James Schrader are testing bioplastic pots to replace those plastic ones holding your tomato plants when you get them each spring at Earl May.
OK, if you’re cheap and buy your plants at Kmart, like I do, they already come in biodegradable pots made of cardboard-like mulch. With those, Grewell says, “there’s no benefit other than it’s bio-based.” ISU’s plant protein-based pots provide a natural fertilizer when they decompose.
The bioplastic pots aren’t on the market yet. The ISU researchers are doing some final work, supported in part with a $3.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
The Massachusetts university, Grewell says, is a leader in polymer processing. Metabolix, one of the country’s top bioplastics companies, has its roots at UMass Lowell. Together, the researchers will look at all aspects of bioplastics production, from the feedstocks to the economics.
First up is a two-day workshop, date TBD, where ISU and UMass researchers will meet with industry partners to iron out projects and finalize the structure, an ISU release says.
Maybe they’ll serve frozen yogurt during the breaks.