Thursday, February 9, 2023

Researchers seek to grow tougher fibers

August 30, 2001

The search to find environmentally-friendly solutions for the diminishing oil supply and increasing oil consumption in the United States may end right on MSU’s campus.

MSU researchers are trying to find ways to make tough and versatile materials that can be fabricated into items such as automotive parts and a variety of plastics - all from plants and agricultural products.

Lawrence Drzal, director of MSU’s Composite Materials and Structures Center and a part of the researching team, said there has been a growing acceptance for more environmentally-friendly products, but these products must perform and be cost effective to be competitive.

At this week’s 222nd National Conference of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, MSU researchers are presenting four papers that will outline methods to turn plants into composite materials.

The week-long conference will give the researchers a chance to describe how bio-composite materials can turn natural fibers such as cotton and hemp into lightweight, strong materials and soybeans and sugar into plastics.

“We’ve been doing this research for years,” Drzal said. “We’re now gradually expanding into higher levels of research.”

Drzal said the natural fibers are more advantageous than common glass fibers used in composite materials because they cost 25 percent less. Apart from low cost, the fibers are also low in density, can use solar energy and are biodegradable.

Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor who does research with natural polymers, said creating crop-based, environmentally-friendly fibers would be a gold mine for Michigan farmers.

“Since farmers will be able to grow these crops for uses other than food, it will be a huge market opportunity for them,” he said.

Narayan also added that manufacturing the natural fibers as a substitute for oil would be advantageous to the economy since importing oil would no longer be needed.

Although the natural fibers present many advantages over petroleum-based fibers, Drzal said the research still has a long way to go.

“There are various chemical issues when dealing with this type of research,” he said. “We have to find out ways to teach chemicals to get adhesion and figure out how to make these materials more efficient and high in speed.”

Though replacing existing manufacturing may take time, Drzal said that the cost and environmental benefits of the agricultural products are evidence of the research’s promise.

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