Reshaping Industries

Chemistry majors Nat Dexter '16 and Erik Larson '16 observe projects in one of Bradley's chemistry labs. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
January 11, 2016

As industries ease away from petroleum-based products, Bradley students and faculty are among the researchers testing renewable alternatives. Two students spent the 2014-2015 school year perfecting a process that could create plastic substitutes from common industrial waste products.

Biochemistry graduate student Swathi Malkedkar, of Bloomington, Illinois, and Erik Larson ’16, a chemistry major from Knoxville, Illinois, built new compounds using biodegradable materials and a treatment of ionic liquid (liquid salt).

Their research on these natural fiber products, as part of broader work by Dr. Luke Haverhals, could alter the $400 billion U.S. plastics industry. That’s because an almost-limitless number of material combinations can replace petroleum-based products in many settings. For instance, they can be strong enough to become desktops or shelves that currently use petroleum-based glues and resins. Biocomposites also can be used in electronics, as the materials can be flexible and designed to conduct or insulate from electric current.

“It’s everyone’s dream to use economic biodegradable materials because they are the future,” Malkedkar said. “Look around and you’ll see plastics everywhere. Biocomposites will be able to take the place of many of those things.”

Studies like this aim for a positive impact on the economy and environment. Plastics currently use about 10 percent of the world’s petroleum and crowd landfills for thousands of years. On the other hand, biocomposites are cheaper to produce and more abundant because of the numerous renewable alternatives — many of which come from industries’ waste products.

“Biocomposites free up fuel for other uses,” Larson said. “The goal of researchers like us is to make a chunk of the economy greener by using waste to make biodegradable, efficient products.”

Uses include medicine, as Malkedkar noted. As she worked with Larson, she recognized how such research could benefit her pharmaceutical background.

“There are many things from this research I could incorporate,” she said. “When doing research like this, we’re always asking if these products could be used in pharmacies, and there definitely are places for it.”

For Larson, the project proved to be a growth-producing academic challenge that showed him new possibilities.

“It’s been a good push to think more critically and to get real-world experience,” he said. “There are great ideas out there and I’ve seen how I could impact the world with this cutting-edge technology.”

Haverhals believed the students’ research would soon yield significant results as the field grows. Though the biocomposite research niche is still small in academia, it is making strides thanks to Haverhals and research partners like the Armed Forces, U.S. Department of Agriculture and hemp industry.

“We’re working hard to mentor students like Erik, Swathi and others to go and pursue these technologies better than we can now,” Haverhals said. “Study by study, this group of people is quietly setting the stage for game-changing technologies to hit the market. Given the economic and ecological issues at play, it’s simply a matter of time before these start attracting headlines alongside companies like Tesla Motor, Inc.”