Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Innovation 2015

Industry/university bioplastics research center a first

Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites logo
“Plastics…There’s a great future in plastics.” That line from the 1967 movie The Graduate could be revised to say that the future is now in bioplastics. Washington State University, in collaboration with Iowa State University, recently established the first industry and university cooperative research center devoted to the development of biologically based plastics.

“Making plastics is not new, but making them from renewable materials rather than from petroleum is a growing area of interest in research and in industry,” said Michael Kessler, Berry Family director.

“There are advantages of bioplastics from an environmental, economic, and even performance standpoint, and the field is growing exponentially,” he said. “I am confident that this center will address many of the critical issues in bio-based polymers and composites which will lead to a more sustainable future.”

With support from a National Science Foundation grant, the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites will work with industry and university partners to increase the use of biologically based, sustainable materials in the marketplace.

The five-year award creates a cooperative research center that brings together partners to conduct research that is particularly relevant for industry and has a high potential for commercialization. There are about 60 such research centers in the United States, including another at WSU that is focused on the design of integrated circuits. Industry partners also provide support for the center.

Research in the new center will be focused in the areas of synthesis and compounding of bioplastics and biocomposites, bio-based products, processing, medical applications, and computer modeling of processing techniques. In addition to 17 faculty members from WSU, the center includes researchers from ISU as well as over 25 industry partners such as 3M, Boeing, ADM, Hyundai Motor Group, Ford, Solvay, and Eco Products.

Plants to Plastics

Researchers find environmentally friendly uses for plant oils

Researchers have developed a new way to use plant oils like olive and linseed oil to create polyurethane, a plastic material used in everything from foam insulation panels to tires, hoses, and sealants. The researchers, led by Michael Kessler, Berry Family Director and Professor in the Voiland College’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, have published a paper on the work in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Polyurethane is extremely tough and corrosion and wear resistant, but researchers would like a more environmentally friendly alternative to the petroleum-based product. About 14 million tons of polyurethane were produced in 2010, and production is expected to increase by almost 30 percent by 2016.

While there are already some polyurethanes made from plant materials, Kessler’s research group developed a new method that uses vegetable oils to create materials with a wide range of flexibility, stiffness, and shapes. Plant oils are inexpensive, readily available, renewable, and can be genetically engineered.

In the study, the researchers made polyurethane using olive, canola, grape seed, linseed, and castor oils. While other researchers have struggled with using petroleum-based solvents, the WSU researchers, working with colleagues from Iowa State and Cairo universities, didn’t use solvents or a catalyst in their production.

Innovation 2015 magazine cover

Innovation Magazine

Read more in Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s latest edition of Innovation Magazine.