Wine-making, meet renewable energy production: a team of undergraduate engineering students from Oregon State University has developed an environmentally friendly, biodegradable polymer derived from biodiesel and wine-making byproducts that could replace polystyrene foam meat trays in supermarkets and be used in the manufacture of fire logs, furniture and other consumer goods.
The senior chemical engineering students created this new polymer by combining glyerin, a biodiesel production byproduct, and tartaric acid, a common byproduct of wine production. "When put together, those ingredients can make a hard, bubbly polymer," said Heather Paris, one of the students. They blended sawdust and woodchips into the mixture to produce a more flexible, moldable material after their first attempts yielded a very hard, sticky substance. To toughen it up, they placed it in an oven. The outcome of that process seemed to suggest that the polymer could be put to use as both a building and insulation material. "Then we found that at 600 degrees, our polymer vaporized," Paris said. "So we thought, how about ash-free logs or pellets for heating?"
Having won several prizes at OSU's eighth annual Engineering Expo in May, including the "Best Chemical Engineering Project," the team is now hard at work testing and refining the polymer for biodegradability and durability.
"Producing biodiesel produces a lot of glycerin," said David Hackleman, the Linus Pauling Chair at the OSU College of Engineering, who helped guide the students along the patent application process for their breakthrough discovery. "Now it seems that even the waste from green industries can be put to another good use — one that can help in the solution to a global problem."