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NMSU researchers explore production of polymers from biomass

Energy sources, such as biodiesel and ethanol, are currently being produced on the industrial scale from plants, plant products and algae. Now researchers from New Mexico State University are investigating ways to use these renewable biomass sources to produce polymeric products that might be used for biomedical or food-related applications.

Left to right: Professor Delia Valles-Rosales, PhD students Alejandro Alvarado and Ivan Rodriguez, Professor Stuart Munson-McGee, high school senior Kyle Ortiz, and undergraduate student Nick Gantick, all look over a part created on a 3D rapid modeling printer located behind them. The group is currently engaged in bioplastics research in the College of Engineering. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Delia Julieta Valles-Rosales, assistant professor of industrial engineering, is interested in developing novel methods to convert biomass, such as vegetable oil, into biopolymers that could be molded into value-added products. She has assembled a group of industrial engineering students along with chemistry and chemical engineering researchers in a quest to develop a patentable, bioplastic material.

"We're not looking to replace petroleum-based products, such as packaging, which has already been extensively explored. We cannot compete with the existing manufacturing processes for petro-based plastics," Valles said. "Instead, we are looking at very specialized polymers that can have new, specialized uses."

One such use could be catheters used to deliver intravenous medications. The advantage of using catheters made from bioplastics, explained Valles, is that they are expected to degrade more quickly than their petro-based counterparts and they may contain fewer toxins.

Valles and her group are already testing materials for this use. They have used lipids extracted from canola oil to generate a new family of bio-thermoplastics that can be molded when heated. Chemist Juan Noveron, at the University of Texas-El Paso, and chemical engineer Stuart Munson-McGee, NMSU, and are synthesizing these new bio-composites for experimentation.

Industrial engineering students are using rapid-prototyping processes that rely on computer-generated, three-dimensional models to produce an actual prototype. The prototype is used to create a mold into which the bio-thermoplastic can be injected. Rapid prototyping decreases production time and lowers costs by exposing potential pitfalls early in the design phase.

The students are also developing computer models to determine the life of a product under certain conditions, for instance, exposure to fluids that have the characteristics of blood.

There are many advantages of converting renewable biomass sources into biopolymers. The use of biopolymers rather than petroleum-based products may help reduce oil dependence. Approximately 500 million tons a year of petro-based products will be produced by 2010, comprising nearly 10 percent of total oil consumption in the U.S., reports the Aug. 14, 2008, issue of BusinessWeek.

Biopolymers are also biodegradable and less toxic than fossil-fuel derived materials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 6.9 percent of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2006, partly because they are composed of different materials and are difficult to recycle.

Another consideration in the research is to use a source of biomass that would not be used as a source of food in other countries, such as corn. Canola oil fits this requirement, as does algae, which is showing promise through research being conducted by the College of Engineering Institute for Energy and the Environment as a base for transportation fuel. Waste cooking oil from restaurants may also be considered at some point, Valles said.