Sustainable Polymeric Nanocomposites
Petroleum is finite and as world economies develop it will be increasingly expensive. Consequently, crude oils containing contaminants including mercury and sulfur will be processed. The resulting extensive pollution along with concerns over climate change make it highly desirable to find alternative sources of plastics as a means of pollution prevention. Plastic water bottles in California are filling up available dumping space and when released into the ocean cause environmental problems. Finally, during the production of foamed plastic articles, significant quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are generated. The purpose of this multi phase SBIR research project is to develop and commercialize next generation bioplastics using nanotechnology to address these ecological concerns. We expect the resulting green plastics to compete on a price/performance basis.
PLA is a bioplastic made from corn but available from any fermentable biomass resource, including plentiful cellulosics. Life cycle analysis shows multiple environmental benefits over petroleum-based plastics. However, the property window of PLA is limited the heat distortion temperature (HDT) is too low. In Phase I, University expertise developed under previous EPA STAR funding was exploited to develop nanocomposite technology the successfully overcame the HDT limitation. Presently polystyrene is largely used for these applications and foamed with 3-5 weight percent hydrocarbons. PLA can be foamed with carbon dioxide so the new technology has the additional benefit of displacing at lest 1 million pounds per year of VOCs. Because of the clear commercialization potential of the nanotechnology, a commercialization agreement with the Sealed Air Corporation (SAC) a $4 billion/year in sales multinational was reached and will provide rapid commercialization if the technical milestones of this Phase II project are met. An immediate commercial application is in solid and foamed trays; projections suggest an annual consumption of 15-20 million lbs/year with an annual sales volume of approximately $20 million.
To meet the full suite of requirements on solid and foamed trays, additional material property targets have been identified in conjunction with SAC; meeting these requirements constitutes the basis of the Phase II work plan. When successfully met, a commercialization option will be exercised at the end of the first year and co-funded by a $100,000 SAC investment. This will enable an expanded work plan culminating in the production of solid and foamed trays prototypes using an industrially relevant pilot scale production line in place at the SAC development laboratories in Duncan, SC.
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