Energy grant expands UD's composites program

by Neil Thomas

Delaware could become the center of the emerging bio-based materials industry as the result of a major U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to expand research being conducted by the University of Delaware's Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources (ACRES) program, which has developed techniques to manufacture soy-based plastics

"The bio-based materials industry will be born in Delaware," Richard Wool, UD professor of chemical engineering and director of the program, said. "The main purpose of this grant is to expand on the ACRES basic research and to develop the corporate infrastructure to mass produce bio-based materials in collaboration with industry, national labs and partner universities."

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced Sept. 18 that DOE will invest $30 million over the next three to five years in 11 projects to develop process technology to produce chemicals plastics, materials and other products from plant matter and other natural waste materials.

"Producing marketable industrial products out of plants saves energy, saves nonrenewable resources and creates jobs," Abraham said. "The bioenergy and bioproducts fields hold tremendous potential for environmentally desirable manufacturing and the creation of new jobs in the farm belt."

Projects receiving funding include research to convert castor seed oil to plastic and other products, and to convert soy seeds to adhesives, resins and composites; advanced membrane separation technology; new crop harvesting and storage technology; and the optimization of grain for bioproduct processing.

ACRES, which is based in the UD Colburn Laboratory and the Center for Composite Materials and has long experience in soy seed conversion, will be part of a collaborative effort that includes Kansas State University, Ashland Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, CARA Plastics Inc. of Newark, and North Central Kansas Processors of Washington, Kan.

DOE has earmarked $3-5 million for the project and anticipates a like amount in private funding.

Wool said about half of the total will be provided for research at the University and he expects it to be an important stimulus.

"This funding will require us to think creatively and expand the ACRES program considerably outside its current box, which is already quite avant garde," he said.

Wool said the project has "significant interest from industry, nationally and internationally, in the general area of bio-based materials."

There is specific interest in ACRES initiatives in the use of bio-based materials to build hurricane resistant housing, to create shape and engineered wood substitutes that Wool calls "woodless lumber," to manufacture environmentally friendly cosmetic packaging and for use in the automotive industry.

ACRES researchers also are studying applications for use of bio-based materials in pressure-sensitive adhesives, such as tape and sticky notes.

In addition to soy, Wool said the program is studying the use of chicken feathers in various manufacturing processes in response to the waste management needs of the state's large broiler industry.

"The markets are truly enormous and at least an order of magnitude larger than, say, the current composite industry, where we started with soy-based tractors for John Deere," Wool said.

Wool said the collaborative nature of the project is new and will have a positive impact on the work. He cited work under way at Kansas State University, which is studying genetic engineering of bio-based materials, and the need for massive computer simulations of interactions among complex materials.

The ACRES initiatives, coupled with new DOE, National Science Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency grants, will result in a large expansion of the multidisciplinary program, Wool said.

"This ACRES program expansion can have significant impact on a new generation of environmentally friendly materials, which is very attractive to students and opens new creative horizons for their research," Wool said.

"From a professor's perspective, I see that the potential is enormous, the excitement for students is tangible, the challenges are mind-expanding and their research results will help generate a sustainable environment for all," he said, adding, "But, most importantly, this work is fun. For me, this is job satisfaction at UD and, given the quality of the chemical engineering department and the Center for Composite Materials, there can be no better place to do it."

The bioproducts and bioenergy initiative, which was stimulated by the Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000 and is part of the Bush Administration's National Energy Plan, is a multi-agency effort jointly coordinated by DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.