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LSU AgCenter Gets $790,000 Grant for Research on Natural Composites

14 January 2007

wood or other agricultural fibres recently received a $791,568 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The grant is one of 17 given nationally for biomass research, development and demonstration projects, said Dr. Qinglin Wu, project leader in the School of Renewable Natural Resources.

The LSU AgCenter grant is for research designed to enhance creative approaches in developing next generation advanced technologies. The project aims to find technologically feasible and economically acceptable solutions for using wood and other natural fibres together with commingled waste plastics, Wu said.

""Because of a continuing proliferation of plastic resin types, the recycling industry cannot sort out all the contaminants – making more plastic waste,"" Wu said. ""Combining waste plastics with natural fibres to produce high-quality industrial products provides a prospective solution for using biomass resources and leading to new economic development in an environmentally friendly manner.""

The resulting fibre-reinforced plastic composites could be used to make weather-resistant products such as roofing shingles, patio furniture, decking and other structural materials. Other uses could be for bumpers, dashboards and similar components for automobiles and other power equipment.

Wu said the grant will allow the research to move to a larger scale by investing in machines that can make extruded or molded fiber-plastic materials in larger sizes and quantities. ""We want to create a process that can be commercialized,"" Wu said.

Wu cited Louisiana’s large plastics manufacturing base along with the state’s fibre production – both forest products and other agricultural by-products – as important to his research. ""This is a marriage of plastics and fiber,"" he said. ""The ideal place for these industries to merge is in Louisiana."" Wu and his research team have been combining recycled plastics with such fibres as rice straw, wood and bagasse – the fibres remaining after the juice is squeezed out of sugarcane – for several years. ""We have already created in the laboratory products with potential applications,"" Wu said.

The researchers have created co-polymers reinforced with natural fibres to reduce brittleness and increase strength. A new twin-screw extrusion machine in the Forest Products Development Center combines the fibres and plastics and, using a combination of 50 percent plastics and 50 percent fibres, Wu and his team can produce materials with similar handling properties as wood.

The researchers also are looking at nano particles – such as nanoclays – to improve the bonds between the plastics and the natural fibres. ""The polymer molecules can then penetrate into the layered clays to form stronger bonds, leading to enhanced composite properties,"" Wu said. ""The bond between wood and plastic is not a true chemical bond but a physical bond. We’re looking at nano technology using nanoclays with a new generation of coupling agents to create chemical bridges or bonds between them. The agents attach with chemical bonds to both the plastics and the wood fibres. Then their chemical properties create a stronger composite material.""

The next step is to acquire an industrial-sized, twin-screw extrusion machine to evaluate different formulations and create testing samples. ""The current wood composites laboratory has state-of-the art equipment essential to polymer-based composite research,"" Wu said. ""It’s considered to be one of the best composite labs in the South.""

Wu credits Louisiana Board of Regents’ grants from the Louisiana Education Quality Support Fund, as well as other grants from the National Science Foundation, USDA, the Governor’s Biotechnology Initiative Program and private funds, for helping to equip the current laboratory. That was instrumental in being able to compete successfully for the latest grant, he said. Wu’s long-term goal is to form a Louisiana Bio-fiber Polymer Composite Consortium under the LSU AgCenter umbrella.

Wu is the Roy O. Martin Sr. Professor in Composites and Engineered Wood Products in the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. Other members of the research team are Dr. Craig M. Clemons at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., Dr. Kun Lian at the LSU Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices and Dr. Yong Lei of the AgCenter’s Louisiana Forest Products Development Center.





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