A local plastics manufacturer provides a testing ground for resins designed by the Ag Lab.

Illinois Valley Plastics (IVP) and the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (Ag Lab) in Peoria have been partners for a number of years. IVP is a plastics manufacturer located in Washington, Illinois, for more than 60 years. The Ag Lab, established in 1940, has a pilot-scale polymer processing and evaluation plant.

With the increasing importance of the “bio-economy,” the Ag Lab assists industrial partners by providing commercially viable plant-based fibers and polymers for evaluation in industrial-scale processing. IVP, in turn, shares its expertise in plastics molding and has provided training to Ag Lab employees who work in the pilot plant.

Blending Plant and Plastic
Ag Lab scientists have published dozens of articles on plant polymer composites in a range of peer-reviewed scientific journals over the last 10 years. Polymer composites are a blend of a plastic, such as polyethylene, and a plant-based polymer or fiber. These composites reduce the price of a product because plant-based fibers are typically very inexpensive and can replace some percentage of the more expensive plastic. They may also provide a solution to pollution issues by being partially or completely biodegradable.

There are two main avenues of research in this arena. The first is to determine how much of the plastic can be substituted without losing the structural integrity of the product. The second is to see if there are any beneficial interactions (such as adhesion or bonding) between the two components. If there are, it may possess characteristics of both phases, meaning it can be used in many different products that require different mechanical properties.

A Real-World Test
The Ag Lab has a pilot-scale injection molder capable of making test samples (as shown in the photograph), while IVP’s primary business is to manufacture plastic parts for its customers using robotic-controlled industrial injection molders. These injection molders first melt plastic resins, and then “shoot” them under high pressure into molds to make plastic products ranging from drinking cups to chairs to automotive parts. Many are complex in design, so they require different melting, flowing and cooling properties.

IVP is able to provide a “real-world” test for the resins designed by the Ag Lab. The company can also provide customer feedback on the demand for bio-based plastic resins. Bio-based products, then, may open up a new market for farmers.

For example, the Ag Lab recently obtained apple cider waste product from a local orchard, dried it, and formed pellets. Normally, this apple waste would be composted, burned or discarded, but in this case, IVP took the apple waste pellets and combined them with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a common thermoplastic used in a wide range of products, such as injection-molded car parts (as pictured).

It was found that up to 40 percent of the ABS could be replaced with the apple waste pellets without a loss of functionality. This results in a 40-percent cost savings, as the apple waste costs virtually nothing to acquire. This kind of public-private partnership shows that cooperation in central Illinois is a win-win situation. iBi

Victoria Finkenstadt, PhD, is a research chemist at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research.