LINCOLN, Neb. -- You'll get no static from this University of Nebraska-Lincoln invention.



Really.



UNL's Industrial Agricultural Products Center has invented a technology that combines corn starch and polystyrene to make a packing peanut that combines the best features of the two substances.



StarchTech, a Minnesota-based company, has an exclusive contract with UNL to commercially produce the product, which it plans to begin test-marketing early this year, said Ed Boehmer, the company's founder and chief executive officer.



Traditional packing peanuts are made of polystyrene, a nonbiodegradable product, and the production process uses greenhouse gases, Boehmer said. And, of course, the peanuts accumulate those static charges that make them so difficult to handle.



Boehmer's company has been producing environmentally friendly starch packing peanuts. They're biodegradable -- even edible -- and don't get staticky. StarchTech sells the peanuts to a fairly limited local market since their bulk makes it infeasible to ship very far. However, the company has tapped into an international market with a process that produces tiny pellets, which are much easier to ship. Customers then use an extruder to turn the pellets into puffy peanuts in their own factories.



The all-starch peanuts have drawbacks, too. Most notably, they're water soluble, which means they might dissolve if they get wet or, in especially humid climates, become tacky.



IAPC came up with the best of both worlds. Milford Hanna, director of the center, and his team have developed a patent-pending process that produces a packing peanut based on starch with a small amount of polystyrene added.



"It's a hybrid, if you will, between starch and polystyrene," Boehmer said.



"The physical properties of our material are more like polystyrene but without the static problem," said Marvin Jaques, licensing manager for UNL's Office of Technology Development. "The manufacturing process is very similar to the straight starch product, with no nasty chemicals."



While the UNL product is not biodegradable, it is made primarily from renewable resources, added Jaques, whose office was responsible for negotiating the exclusive contract between UNL and StarchTech. Like the all-starch peanuts, these hybrids don't get staticky either.



"This technology also dramatically reduces the time it takes to make the product" -- from a week to almost instantaneous, Boehmer said. "It also uses a different blowing agent, which is what expands the product." Instead of pentane, this process uses water.



Boehmer said his company will continue to produce the all-starch peanuts as well.



StarchTech's customers include American Girl Dolls, Amway, Mary Kay, the Vitamin Shoppe and Crutchfield.



Future uses of this technology could include insulating foam sheets and other applications where Styrofoam is used today.



This research is supported by UNL's Agricultural Research Division, a part of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. IANR also includes UNL Extension and the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.



SOURCE: University of Nebraska.