A U of A researcher has managed to create automotive-grade plastics out of cow parts that had been turned worthless after the mad cow crisis.
Lead researcher David Bressler found a use for unwanted protein substances from the cattle industry, by breaking them down into harmless building blocks that could be transformed into much more useful materials.
To protect against potential bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, cows’ nervous systems and anything that came into contact with the brain or spinal cord was classified as “specified risk material,” a label that Bressler said made people treat it like “toxic waste.”
“So all of a sudden, that protein component had no value. In fact, it had worse than no value. It had to be segregated and disposed of,” Bressler said, noting that it costs the industry up to $60 a ton to safely get rid of.
One common method of disposal is hydrolysis, where heated, pressurized water is used to break down the proteins, turning the SRM into useless black goo. Bressler, a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences was looking for ways to add value back to the agriculture sector by finding uses for byproducts. Unused materials are usually turned into things like solvents, lubricants and biofuels, but the black goo was far from useful.
“It’s got bone in it, it’s got hair, it’s got all kinds of ugly stuff in it,” he explained. But after studying the molasses-like material, Bressler found a way to extract the proteins to create a brown powder. By cross-linking it in a solution, the powder could be turned into different sorts of plastics; much more practical than black gunk.
“The original material stinks, really bad, but by building it into a plastic it’s odorless,” Bressler explained. “But to build it back to value, we have to build it into something bigger.”
By manipulating the amount of cross-linking, Bressler was able to create a range of plastics, from soft, malleable sheets to rock-hard but brittle discs. He found an interest in the automotive industry, which demands hard, strong, high-quality plastics, but is also willing to pay a high price.
In addition to improving the strength and overall quality of the product, Bressler is also looking at testing other plastic applications, and especially at combining it with other agricultural byproducts to construct composites such as fibreglass. Currently the resulting product turns out in varying shades of brown, so he’s also looking at ways to make a clearer, more appealing shade.
Making plastics out of organic material is nothing new; scientists have created polymers from the agricultural sector, like starch and canola oil.
“The primary, biggest difference is that those other materials already have value in the food marketplace. Starch has value. Canola oil has value. So they’ve always had a struggle in that way.”
There is little doubt in Bressler’s mind that the process will be commercialized in the future, thanks to the danger of their starting material.
“We’re making plastic out of materials that has been costing the industry [money] to dispose of,” he said. “So we have a pretty good price point to start with.”
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