NDSU researchers develop biobased composite materials

By Erin Voegele | May 23, 2011

A team of researchers at North Dakota State University is working to develop biobased composite building materials. The North Dakota Renewable Energy Council recently awarded the project, titled Biobased Non-Isocyanate Urethane Hybrid Resins, a two-year, $200,000 grant. The North Dakota Soybean Council has also provided $80,000 in funding to support the research.

According to information released by NDSU, composite materials have traditionally been manufactured from glass fibers held together with a petrochemical-based binder resin. The university’s research team, which includes scientists, engineers and private industry partners, aims to develop new types of biobased binder resins from agricultural products.

Chad Ulven, an assistant professor in NDSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and member of the research team, said he has been working to develop biobased composite materials for around six years. “This new project is a more unique collaboration that is going to look at developing thermosetting resins from natural resources,” he said. “The goal is for those resins to be used in pultrusion composites, which is a unique kind of composite. The resin curing time and strength property characteristics are quite unique for the applications that those pultrusions go into.”

According to Ulven, the primary source of feedstock for the resin is expected to be vegetable oils. “From there we will go on to synthesize those vegetable oils into different resin chemistries,” he added. “We’ve got quite a large test matrix that we are going to be embarking on in this project, and testing out different types of synthesis on those vegetable oils.”

Ulven was unable to share the specific chemistries his team is considering to manufacture with the resin because the team expects to develop intellectual property for some of the resins it develops. However, he did note that the team plans to study between six and 12 different process routes to find optimal resins for the technology. In addition to using renewable feedstocks to produce composite resin, Ulven also noted there is potential down the road to use natural fibers, such as those sourced from flax or hemp, to replace the fiberglass within the composites as well.

Resins developed by the team will be evaluated for performance at Fargo, N.D.-based Tecton Products LLC. “Tecton is a company here in Fargo that pultrudes composites,” Ulven said. “Working with industry is very important for this project because they are giving us the technical expertise as far as what type of resin is going to work in their pultrusion process, so that we can develop and test and design the materials to work in their industry setting. Their advisory role and help in making sure the type of resin we are developing can work, and will work, in industry is very important.”

While demand for green building materials seems to be growing, Ulven said that consumers willing to pay a premium for those products are still few and far between. “The fact that consumers are looking for greener materials, but most of them aren’t willing to pay any more for them—and they expect the same performance—is really a good driver or catalyst for researchers to step up and become more innovative, and I think that’s what we are doing in this project,” Ulven said. “Through different types of innovative chemistry routes, we are trying to provide a solution that is just as cost effective but also high in renewable content and has the same property values. I think that’s good. I think it’s good for consumers to kind of push back on researchers to be more innovative in this area.”