The Center for Biodegradable Polymers and Additives has a single goal: to develop materials and plastic replacements that completely break down and return to nature when discarded, either in soil, water, or marine environments.
With respect to plastics, these materials have many forms and functions and typically include additives that change their ultimate properties or the ability to process and form parts, films, and fibers. We are also researching new additives with the design criteria that any additive also must completely break down and not release metals, toxins, or any persistent materials into the environment. We are developing new materials based on plant-based (biomass) feedstocks, petroleum-based feedstocks, and polymers made by microorganisms that have the ultimate fate of replacement products for single-use items that litter the environment.
The center has four current research directions:
Chemical derivatization of natural glycopolymers
With researchers from UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, we are developing modified cellulosics, hemicellulosics, and pectins that can be used in a wide variety of applications including packaging, superabsorbents, thermosets, and coatings. Research includes both chemical and enzymatic modifications, along with precise structural characterization, to better understand the structure/property relationships in these classes of materials.
Microbial processes to synthesize new polymers that replace petroleum-based polymers
We are developing microorganisms that direct natural and renewable materials like sugars and fats into specialty and commodity polymers. These polymers have applications as elastomers and thermoplastics, and even as wound healing agents. In addition to being more sustainable, using microbes to generate products often reduces the chemical footprint of polymer production processes. Our research includes both the development of the microorganisms, and engineering and designing processes to use these microorganisms effectively.
New mechanical processing technologies (milling, extrusion, gel formation) for carbohydrate- and protein-based feedstocks
Because of their versatility and varied origins, these materials can be processed by thermomechanical molding in the same way as conventional plastics. At UGA, the NMI is investigating the thermal, mechanical, water susceptibility, biodegradability, and antibacterial properties of both natural glycopolymers and proteins, including whey, albumin, and algae proteins and their thermoplastic blends with traditional synthetic polymers.
We are quantifying the degradation of bioplastics and composites under different conditions (aerobic and anaerobic) using ASTM and ISO standards. Laboratory testing and guidance includes soil biodegradation and marine biodegradation in a variety of mediums including industrial and household compost, soil, freshwater, and saltwater.