Iowa State University in USDA-funded program to create alternative to petroleum-plastic containers, find new ways of using PET, IBM tooling, injection molding to develop eco-friendly plant containers aimed at US$7.12B specialty crop industry

LEE’S SUMMIT, Missouri , July 10, 2012 () – R&D/Leverage’s creativity in mold manufacturing for PET tooling, IBM tooling and Injection molds, as well as unit tool development, testing and validation, is making it possible for Iowa State University (ISU) scientists to develop sustainable horticulture containers – eco-friendly flower pots – in a massive, USDA-funded, multi-institutional research program targeting the $7.12 billion container specialty crop industry.

The goal of the program is to develop a commercially feasible bioplastic container design, an alternative to petroleum-plastic containers that can potentially save $706 million annually, according to the researchers. The industry encompasses bedding plants, fruits and vegetables and containerized shrubs and trees for residential gardening and landscaping. Today, use of rarely recycled petroleum-based containers is virtually universal.

Called “Bioplastic Container Cropping Systems: Green Technology for the Green Industry,” the five-year research program is the largest of its type ever performed, according to Dr. James Schrader, Co-Principal Investigator for the project at ISU. “Bioplastic containers degrade harmlessly when installed with the plant in a garden or landscape,” Schrader said.

“Another key benefit of the new-breed green containers is the ability to shift from foreign feedstocks to domestic biorenewables.”
The ISU team developed 14 formulations, each with a different mechanical property. Early on, however, it became clear that the mold making process was going to be a far greater challenge than with traditional petroleum-based containers. “Ejection from the mold proved difficult for us,” said Dr. David Grewell, Associate Professor, Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering, and a Co-Principal Investigator of the project. “R&D/Leverage created a unique mold design that allowed complete release when the mold opened. We explained our need and they just ran with it,” he said.

When the mold was engineered and built, the ISU team brought their full complement of 14 different bio-resins, ranging from a traditional PLA (polylactic acid) to PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) made by bacteria transforming sugars into polymers, to tree oil resin and soy bean protein materials. Others included organic fillers such as dry distilled grains and corn stover, a by-product of corn harvesting. Testing of the mold and the various bio-resins were completed in R&D/Leverage’s validation labs at its Missouri facility, with technical guidance from the Iowa State University team.

“We enjoy challenging the status quo and, in this case, we had been excited about working with bio-resins,” said Jeff Cooper, R&D/Leverage’s Engineering Manager – Mold Design and Manufacture. “The key issue wasn’t about dimensions and tolerances but had more to do with the materials being used and their moisture content,” Cooper said. “This was a project that got our creative juices flowing and one that will help us develop solutions for other customers seeking sustainable alternatives.”
Added Dr. Schrader, “The efficiency and productivity of petroleum-based containers are rarely questioned. But petroleum material is non-renewable and from non-domestic sourcing, and the price continues to rise, which impacts profitability. Add the environmental damage caused by non-biodegradable containers, and you have a strong case for alternative sourcing. R&D/Leverage played a big role in helping us move these new bio-plastic containers towards commercial reality,” he said.

This project was funded by the USDA and related work by the United Soybean Board.

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