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Wheat plastic reduces use of petroleum products

It's an evocative, truly Kansan image -- farmers running their combines over fields of wheat, their ripe crop soon to be harvested for plastic

By Mark Berry



From wheat to plastic

Wheat straw, as it goes through the cycle to become plastic
Photo by April M. Blackmon.

Wheat straw goes through a multi-step process before it becomes plastic.



Yes, bread isn't the only product made out of wheat. The straw left over when the grain is removed is being used to create a partly organic plastic at Kansas State University. Wheat straw can replace up to 50 percent of the plastic and still perform just like regular plastic, said Gita Ramaswamy, professor of apparel, textiles and interior design.

"Biocomposites are being made with other agricultural fibers and residues. Why not wheat straw? The biggest advantage is that you are replacing petroleum products with organic products," Ramaswamy said. "The durability, strength and water resistance compare well with regular plastic and there is no swelling in our plastic. Hopefully, it will break down a little bit faster."

The wheat straw is ground into a very fine powder and mixed with plastic resins. The mixture is extruded into something that looks like dark brown spaghetti noodles, which can be cut into pellets and molded into the final product. The process can result in hard or soft plastics of any thickness or density, Ramaswamy said. She said the wheat plastic costs the same to produce as regular plastic.

Ramaswamy said the wheat plastic can be used in plastic automobile parts like ashtrays and dashboards, as well as in trash cans, storage units and other products. The scientists are also considering promoting wheat plastic to the toy industry, which is a large market that is considering the option of using bioplastics, Ramaswamy said.

"We've tested all the properties and we know they compare really well with regular plastic, but the next step has to happen. The next step is to convince people to take a look at this and use these products in their plastics," Ramaswamy said.

Summer 2002