Soybean to Skateboard
How Cornell research catalyzes development sustainable composite materials

by Adam Kahn, staff writer (4/7/11)

Adam Kahn, staff writer

Adam Kahn writes about the visit by Professor Anil Netravali from Cornell’s College of Human Ecology on Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise welcomed Professor Anil Netravali from Cornell’s College of Human Ecology on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, to speak about his research in green composite materials. With an interactive lecture titled “From Sports Gear to Ballistics and from Nanofilters to Wound Healing: Green Opportunities,” Netravali delivered a high-energy account of not only the opportunities in green technologies coming out of his research group, including composites made of soy protein, but also the necessity of weaning our dependence from non-renewable petroleum.

Composites have a wide variety of applications in modern products. Everything from electronics, to artificial joints, to airplanes and spacecrafts rely on composites to be stronger and lighter than steel. The Chevrolet Corvette’s introduction of composite auto bodies unveiled a new means to increase gas mileage, with an unprecedentedly light frame, and professional athletes use composite racquets and golf clubs for top performances. Of course, there’s a wide range of composite quality and price – those materials used in high-stress applications can cost up to $75/lb.

So why are researchers like Netravali seeking to create composites from soy protein? There are two main factors: oil dependence, and environmental degradation. Netravali optimistically explained that he works in a promising field because, given the limited quantity of petroleum available on the planet, we are not far from the day when we will have no choice but to seek alternatives to petroleum-based composites. Though the majority of our current oil dependence is due to its distillation into fuel, such as petrol and petro diesel, approximately 6 percent to 8 percent of petroleum is used for the production of plastics, chemicals and fibers. When manufactured into composites, these materials are extremely difficult to reuse or recycle; 94 percent are destined for landfills and in 2007, 30 million metric tons of plastics were dumped in the United States alone. Production of these resin-based plastics is not sustainable or environmentally friendly.

There are a number of advantages to creating composites from soybean stems, from a holistic view of the product lifecycle. Soybean plants are grown, processed, and manufactured into composites, and, after this use, are composted to organic soil for the growth of new plants. In addition to the environmental advantage of biodegradation, natural fibers are annually renewable, grow readily throughout the world, and can be easily processed without investment in new equipment. Natural plant fibers can even be microfibrillated, making them stronger than Kevlar. When used with high-strength cellulose fibers, nature’s composites outperform the best that humankind can do.

When questioned by the audience about the potential impact of his research on food scarcity, Netravali replied with an example: replacing all of the plywood and particle board in New York State would require only 2 percent to3 percent of the state’s annual soy production.

Given the green opportunity in this field, where are entrepreneurs finding their place? A local startup, e2e Materials, has been using its exclusive license of Netravali’s proprietary technology to create biodegradable, lightweight building materials for furniture and home construction. Another local company, Comet Skateboards , obtained a sub-license from e2e to begin producing biodegradable skateboards, with an eye on the entire life-cycle of its products.

Netravali’s group is currently involved in the creation of green nanofibers that can be used in HEPA filters and other medical applications, such as tissue scaffolding, temporary skin, and audio diaphragms. He expects that as more companies begin to adopt the advantages of natural composites, we will see them in everything from medical supplies, to audio equipment, to ballistic armor.

There are no sure things in entrepreneurial startups, but as the world faces the continued depletion of its petroleum supply, new sustainable technologies, such as those developed here at Cornell, will undoubtedly emerge to take its place.