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Next generation materials: from starch to snowshoes

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"Built to last" may be desirable when buying a metal-framed bicycle, or a new basketball hoop. But these days, many Canadians are equally interested in things built to breakdown... by biodegrading, of course!

From breakthroughs in aluminium manufacturing, to creating biodegradable plastics from common food sources, NRC researchers are discovering new ways to create next-generation materials.

Turning peas and potatoes to plastic

When is a food no longer a food? When it has been turned into plastic.

It's hard to imagine wheat, potato and other starchy staples showing up on your table as disposable plates, cutlery and cups, but that's the aim of NRC's research on bioplastics developed from starch-based polymers found in our food.

Corn, peas and plastic beads

Corn, peas and plastic beads

Currently, the main source of chemicals for everyday plastic is fossil fuels. These petrochemical plastics are very durable but, once disposed of, they take a long time to biodegrade. "In comparison, materials made from starch-based polymers can be made to biodegrade rapidly. They also take less energy during production than petroleum-based plastics," explains NRC's Dr. Michel Huneault.

And with the increasing quantity of plastic piling up in landfills, consumers are looking for environmentally friendly choices, causing manufacturers to search for new options for packaging their products.

Since 2005, Dr. Huneault and his team have been hard at work solving this problem, by developing bioplastics using the starch in peas and wheat. "We're aiming to develop an alternative for the petroleum-based polymers used in throw-away products like packaging," says Dr. Huneault. "Starch is a promising candidate for this purpose because it is a natural polymer. But it has to be modified to make it water resistant and 'thermoplastic' — capable of being melted and shaped."

Terminology:

Bioplastics are plastics manufactured from biomass rather than petroleum.

Biopolymers are polymers present in, or created by, living organisms. Cellulose (from wood, cotton, corn, wheat), soy protein (from soybeans), and starch (from corn, potatoes, wheat, tapioca) are biopolymers.

Polylactic acid is a bioplastic but not a biopolymer. It is made from lactic acid produced by fermenting natural sugars but it is polymerized through a man-made chemical synthesis process.

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One of the major obstacles for the team was blending thermoplastic starch with other polymers – an essential step to produce bioplastics. Previously, thermoplastic starch and the polylactic acid required to make bioplastics were like oil and water – they did not mix!. But after extensive research and testing, Dr. Huneault's team now has the key to producing a blend that mixes more easily and will lead to more versatile bioplastics.

"The day will soon come when consumers won't be able to distinguish biobased plastics from today's petroleum-based plastics," says Dr. Huneault. "Given the environmental and cost advantages of starch-based biopolymers, it won't be long before we see a far greater acceptance of biobased plastics."

High-performance solutions for aluminium snowshoes

Although you may want the plastic packaging from your new snowshoes to break down quickly, you certainly don't want your snowshoes to follow suit! This is why a team of NRC researchers specializing in aluminium technology has been hard at work helping a Canadian manufacturer create a durable and robust product.

We've come a long way since snowshoes were handmade from sinew and wood. Today's high-performance snowshoes are made from modern, lightweight materials like aluminium. But using materials in new product applications often requires new processing technologies – as one manufacturer recently discovered out while trying to produce the perfect snowshoe frame. Something was making the tubing break during the thermal hardening process. It didn't happen every time and there was no obvious cause.

Snowshoe and snowshoe frame

Snowshoe and snowshoe frame

Experts to the rescue...

So, the manufacturer turned to Dr. Ahmed Rahem and his group of expert researchers at NRC's Aluminium Technology Centre for answers. Dr. Rahem and his team began by systematically observing and measuring all aspects of the heat treatment process used to create the aluminium tubing for the snowshoe frames. They then determined the precise conditions that were responsible for causing the tubing to break. After months of testing, the team was able to determine the optimal time and temperature for the aluminium heat treatment process required to prevent breakage and increase product strength.

And the manufacturer is already reaping the benefits!

The company now understands far more about the challenges of metal transformation and how certain processes affect a metal's structural integrity. The changes made to its thermal hardening process have cut production time in half and increased productivity, giving this small Canadian firm a distinct competitive edge.