Materials science research at Tuskegee University, funded by a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, may soon lead to a new line of sustainable, plant-based material commonly used in everything from computer cases and automotive parts to biomedical interventions.
The team’s research has unveiled the usefulness of many types of discarded or underutilized plant and animal waste, including peanut shells, rice husks, egg shells, fish bone and scales, and crustacean shells, just to name a few. These forms of biomass waste — plentifully available in every region of the country — can be repurposed into more “greener,” sustainable products that require less energy to produce and less time to degrade.
Dr. Mahesh Hosur, a professor and head of the university’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will lead a team composed of faculty researchers from Tuskegee, Auburn University and Cornell University. Hosur explained that global warming, depleting petroleum resources, and the growing global carbon footprint are fueling scientific interest in developing biomass-based materials that are biodegradable and inexpensive to produce — while at the same time comparable in application and strength with existing petroleum-derived, non-biodegradable materials.
“Lessening our reliance on petroleum-based plastics will, in turn, have significant environmental impacts, especially in reducing the amounts of non-degradable plastics accumulating in our nation’s landfills,” Hosur said. “This new line of plant-based materials will have a substantially less-negative impact on our environment.”
Hosur cited the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s charge to see the nation’s reliance on chemical commodities reduced by as much as 25 percent by 2030 by increasing the use of plant-based biomass in product production. In addition to replacing petroleum-based polymeric composite materials currently used in many consumer products, using biomass-derived materials in medical applications can lead to more effective wound-healing and drug-delivery solutions like wraps and patches.
However, Hosur noted that this line of research — repurposing biomass derived from plant and animal waste — is not a new concept.
“Native American, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures have used plant materials in construction, medicinal and clothing applications for centuries,” he said. “We are modernizing those applications now by integrating their experiences with the principles of nanomaterial science.”
This new award comes through the NSF’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program, which enhances the research capabilities of minority-serving institutions like Tuskegee University — classified as one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). CREST promotes the development of new knowledge, enhances the research productivity of individual faculty, and leads to an expanded presence of students historically underrepresented in the STEM disciplines.
This new award is an extension of a previous $5 million NSF grant awarded in 2011, which Hosur also directed. In the project’s first phase, a team that included Auburn University, Cornell University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham perfected methods for extracting nanomaterials from plant and plant-waste material that will lead to several patentable outcomes. These efforts also provided hands-on training for a significant number of graduate students who now apply their experience in academic, industry and federal research settings.
In the second phase of this NSF-funded research initiative, Tuskegee will establish a Center for Sustainable Lightweight Advanced Materials, or C-SLAM. It also will continue its multi-institutional collaboration with researchers at Auburn and Cornell and expand its investigation of new types of and applications for biomass materials.
The multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary core research team includes co-principal investigators and Tuskegee researchers Dr. Vijaya Rangari, a professor of materials science, and Dr. Shaik Zainuddin, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Dr. Maria Auad, a professor of chemical engineering representing Auburn; and Dr. Anil Netravali, the Jean and Douglas McLean Professor of Fiber Science representing Cornell.
Additional Tuskegee researchers assisting with the project include Dr. Maria Calhoun, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Dr. Alfred Tcherbi-Narteh, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; and Dr. Michael Curry, associate professor of chemistry and adjunct faculty member of materials science and engineering.