FARGO - As part of a nascent, growing field, North Dakota State University researchers are studying the environmentally friendly future of plant-based materials that would replace petroleum-based plastics now widely in use.
It could affect everything from body armor to yogurt cups.
"One-hundred-twenty years ago, everything was based on plants and minerals, so we're kind of picking up on where we left off," said Dean Webster, chairman of NDSU's Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials.
Scientists are now seeing plant-based materials outperforming similar materials that use petrochemicals, which means they could begin to see more widespread use for reasons other than their biodegradable properties. Webster said many natural materials can help strengthen other, more traditional substances.
Many technologies in the field aren't yet mature enough, Cornell University professor Anil Netravali said Tuesday, July 19, at an NDSU symposium on materials from renewable sources.
But the field is growing. NDSU researchers have obtained dozens of patents on materials sourced from renewables, and scientists worldwide are developing materials such as biodegradable plastics.
Soy has proven useful in creating biodegradable products because it's renewable, has easily modifiable properties and is widely available, Netravali said. NDSU scientists have even developed a biodegradable shampoo from soy.
In some cases, he said, using plant-based polymers can be cheaper than using traditional materials.
"We have a lot of agricultural resources that aren't being used," Webster said
Besides soy, plants such as bananas and coconuts have been used in biodegradable products.
Renewable materials have some caveats. Coca-Cola once balked at using a plant-based bottles because they leaked moisture, and in 2010 Frito Lay withdrew plant-based plastic bags because they were too noisy when they were picked up.
Biodegradable materials from renewable resources have been used to make plastic packaging and air filters. Netravali has used them to create a long-lasting hair straightener, and he said they could eventually be used in humvees and ballistics.
Webster said some of the first scientists to research materials made from renewables were concerned about the cost of petroleum and its availability in the future.
Petroleum reserves will run out soon, Netravali said, so it's necessary to invest more in materials that come from renewable sources. The idea is to take materials from nature, refine them into usable products, and return them to nature in the form of compost, he said. This way, biodegradable products can be used in a sort of "cradle to cradle" process.
"We have no other alternative," Netravali said. "We have almost consumed everything in the last 100 years. We have to turn to something sustainable, and what is more sustainable than plants?"