DATCP: UWM recieves state funding for research on eco-friendly plastics

MILWAUKEE – The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) has awarded a $50,000 grant to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) to advance research on sustainable and biodegradable plastics made from agricultural and forestry products produced in Wisconsin.

Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of the DATCP, will formally announce the award on Tuesday, Aug. 8, at UWM. The ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m. in room E250 of UWM’s Engineering and Mathematical Sciences building, 3200 N. Cramer St.

The research project, headed by Sarah Gong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UWM, is expected to strengthen the state’s strong plastics industry and encourage technology transfer by involving several state businesses. Gong is collaborating with Lih-Sheng Turng, co-director of the Polymer Engineering Center at UW-Madison.

The grant money is part of a $1 million fund available through the Governor’s Consortium on Bio-based Industry that offers businesses and educational institutions access to start-up activities that will grow bio-based industries in the state.

Existing bio-based plastics are made of renewable resources such as corn, soybeans or other agricultural products. Gong’s research will focus on modifying these by incorporating natural fibers to expand their commercial applications. These would provide the same strength and performance as current materials, while adding benefits such as biodegradability and sustainability. Alternatives to petrochemical plastics will minimize dependency on crude oil, gas and coal, and help to control the emissions of global warming agents such as CO2.

The research will investigate the use of natural fibers such as aspen wood fiber, kenaf and jute fibers, as well as those from recycled newspapers, magazines and shopping bags, in creating new plastic materials, says Gong. The project also aims to expand the applications of these new plastics into areas such as manufacturing of electronics, medical and biomedical devices, and automobiles, and in construction.

Among the 50 states, Wisconsin has the 10th-highest employment (more than 50,000 jobs) in the plastics industry. Businesses that are involved in the study include Molded Rubber and Plastic Corporation, Serigraph Inc., Sonoco Products Corporation and The Madison Group.

The biogrants are part of a broad, statewide effort by Gov. Jim Doyle to make Wisconsin a renewable energy leader. The complete list of awardees is at: http://bioeconomy.wi.gov/index.asp.

Sarah Gong has expertise in the areas of polymer synthesis, formulation, processing and characterization. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Gong worked for Henkel Corporation, developing advanced packaging materials for electronics. She joined the UWM faculty in 2005. Besides bio-based plastics, she researches polymer nanocomposites, biomedicalmaterials and microcellular plastics.