AMES, Iowa - There is growing interest in finding renewable products that can be substituted for petrochemicals in a myriad of applications. While biobased plastics are seen as more environmentally preferable, clearly they won't be used commercially unless it can be determined they are economically viable.

That fact led Iowa State University researchers to begin development of a software program that can help determine the economic viability of a proposed biobased product.

David Grewell, assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, has led the software's development. "An increased interest in bioplastics due to ecological and economical issues has promoted interest in analysis of their performance from a 'cradle-to-grave' perspective," he said. "While standard methods for this sort of analysis require the collection of an enormous amount of data, this software takes a simpler approach and only considers the direct energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, costs of raw materials and processing."

Grewell said the software allows users to compare various petrochemical and biobased plastics. "It automatically generates reports and compares the costs and eco-profile of plastic parts from different materials," he said.

Grewell chairs Iowa State's Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team, which will have an exhibit at the NPE2009 International Plastics Exposition June 22-26 in Chicago. The team will be exhibiting samples of plastics, composites, adhesives and coatings they have made from vegetable oils and proteins, plus flower pots and golf tees created from some of the materials they have developed.

The software program, which has been in development for about a year, also will be on display. "We hope to have new people at the show help put the final touches on the program, as we demonstrate how it works and they test it for themselves," Grewell said.

Working with Grewell on what is being called the "Bioplastics Footprint Analysis Software" is Julius Vogel, a graduate student in materials science and engineering. Funding for the project came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Energy Policy and New Uses.

The research team operates under the Center for Crops Utilization Research (CCUR) umbrella. Larry Johnson, CCUR director, said many of the biobased products the team is testing could reduce the final cost of new products dramatically. "This is all about finding new uses for low-value co-products," he said.

The team of researchers includes faculty members in the agricultural and biosystems engineering, natural resource ecology and management, chemistry, materials science, and architecture and design departments.

"This group is unique because of their diverse academic backgrounds," said Johnson. "They cover most, if not all, of the value chains for biocomposites. They're trying to engage folks in industry every step of the way, and have a very strong Iowa focus."

The NPE2009 International Plastics Exposition will take place June 22-26 at Chicago's McCormick Place. A total of 2,000 companies will exhibit over 1 million square feet of exhibit space. About 75,000 plastics professionals from 120 countries are expected to register.

Iowa State's Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team will be in booth number W118027 in the SPE Thermoforming World Pavilion.

SOURCE: Iowa State.