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Agriculture and Plastics Sectors Join to Develop Ohio Bio-composites Industry
6 years, 3 months ago Posted in: Industry News 0

By Mauricio Espinoza, Ohio State University

04/07/2011 —  WOOSTER, Ohio — The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) is helping a Columbus, Ohio, company use plant-derived fibers to create a new generation of composite materials that consumers may soon find in their vehicles, houses and many other products — generating new jobs in Ohio.

Prabhat Krishnaswamy, president of NFCC, shows two automotive parts made with natural fibers currently in product development.

Working alongside the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC), OARDC has partnered with Natural Fiber Composites Corporation (NFCC) to engineer composites from jute, soy hulls, corn and wheat straw, and other plant-based sources instead of materials such as fiberglass. These natural fiber-reinforced composites are being targeted for use in transportation, construction, packaging and industrial products.

Made from two or more constituent materials, composites are popular in many industrial and consumer products that need to be lightweight yet strong. NFCC’s composites are a combination of plant fibers and plastic resins — a formula that also brings together Ohio’s two largest industries, agriculture and polymers.

“Our technology is at the intersection of these two industries. We take agricultural-based fibers and bio-based materials and blend them with plastic resins to create a very unique composite with very high-performance properties that compare with glass-reinforced materials,” said NFCC President Prabhat Krishnaswamy.

“While we had the plastics technology well in hand, we needed help with the agricultural side of the manufacturing operation, and we were introduced to OARDC. As a result of this partnership we’ve been able to optimize and perfect our agricultural feedstock and the processing of these agricultural fibers to a production level.”

The expertise of faculty and staff from OARDC’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering has made it possible for NFCC to develop fibers that can improve the properties of composite products — making them lighter in weight, lower in cost, and less abrasive than traditional reinforcement materials, while still providing comparable performance requirements. NFCC is also investigating the use of bio-based resin with plant-derived fibers so that composite materials can be made entirely from renewable resources.

The partnership with OARDC and OBIC also helped NFCC win a $3 million Third Frontier grant from the state of Ohio in 2009 for development and commercialization of its bio-based fibers and fillers for composites. Further, NFCC was introduced to officials with the city of Wooster and Wayne County in northeast Ohio, whose support led to NFCC’s decision to establish its pilot manufacturing plant in Wooster — just a few miles from the OARDC campus.

“We had both the technology side with OARDC and the economic support from the city and the county, and that impacted our decision to base our operations in Wooster,” Krishnaswamy pointed out.

The plant now has an annual capacity of some 6 million pounds of composite materials for various product formulations. Many prototypes of products from these materials have been made and are under test, with the first successful commercial application launched in July 2010. Currently, NFCC is in product development with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the automotive industry for interior and under-the-hood components.

“NFCC has benefitted immensely from its strategic partnership with The Ohio State University and the OARDC,” Krishnaswamy said. “We would not be at the pilot-plant stage of development and commercialization without this collaboration.”

The NFCC-OARDC partnership has so far created or retained 10 jobs in the supply chain in Ohio, while 12 jobs and $3 million in revenue are expected by the end of 2012. Krishnaswamy said he’s hoping to expand the facility to three to four times its current size within the next few years, when the company is fully operational. “That will create jobs and expand our markets from our base in Wooster,” he noted. “Our technology and our products have tremendous potential for development and growth in Ohio.”

There’s certainly room for NFCC to compete with a product that’s not just “green” but, more importantly, competitive on price and quality. The global market for high-performance composites has experienced a growth rate of 5.4 percent since 2009, and most of that increased demand could be a target for natural-fiber composites such as those being developed by NFCC and its supply chain in Ohio.

The largest university agricultural bioscience research center in the nation, OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Find more story-related photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/osucfaes/.

Source: Ohio State University

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