A team of undergraduate engineering students at Oregon State University has discovered that blending byproducts from biodiesel production and winemaking produces an environmentally friendly polymer that could one day replace polystyrene foam meat trays in supermarkets.
It may also be valuable in the manufacture of furniture, particle board, fire logs, insulation and even hair gel.
The process is so unique and potentially marketable that the students have applied for a patent to protect their intellectual property, said David Hackleman, the Linus Pauling Chair at the OSU College of Engineering.
“I’m delighted, but not totally surprised, that they can now add to their report the words ‘patent application pending,’” Hackleman said.
Christen Glarborg, Patrick O’Connor, Heather Paris and Alana Warner-Tuhy – all seniors studying chemical engineering – delved into combining glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production, and tartaric acid, a byproduct of wine production.
“When put together, those ingredients can make a hard, bubbly polymer,” Paris said.
In the 1880s, the same material was used in the making of varnishes and paints.
“It biodegrades in water,” said O’Connor. “Dr. Hackleman suggested we try to mold it into a tray, like to replace the foam trays under meat in the supermarket.”
But their first experiments resulted in a rock-hard mess: Think of cooking taffy too long, so that it sticks so hard, you have to throw the pot away. The young researchers persevered until they produced a more manageable glue, which they decided to try mixing with other byproducts such as sawdust and woodchips.
Voila! A material that was moldable, though somewhat tacky. So they popped it into an oven to see if it would firm up. It seemed they were possibly onto a particleboard for “green” building.
“Then we found that at 600 degrees, our polymer vaporized,” Paris said. “So we thought, how about ash-free logs or pellets for heating?”
While the students continued exploring possibilities, Hackleman knew enough about entrepreneurship to realize they should begin the process of protecting their intellectual property. He steered them to OSU’s Office of Technology Transfer, where their invention disclosure was brought to the stage of “patent pending.”
The students are now focused on testing and refining the polymer for strength and biodegradability. While it is not yet clear whether or not the technology will make it to commercialization, “it’s certainly a boost for the students,” Hackleman said.
The team won “Best Chemical Engineering Project” and was runner-up for “People’s Choice Award” at OSU’s eighth annual Engineering Expo in May. The team members displayed their research among more than 100 student design projects and product prototypes.
“Producing biodiesel produces a lot of glycerin,” Hackleman said. "Now it seems that even the waste from green industries can be put to another good use – one that can help in the solution to a global problem.”
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