Team of University of North Texas researchers awarded $600,000 NSF grant to develop sustainable building materials

Thursday, July 7, 2011

DENTON (UNT), Texas --Researchers at the University of North Texas are on the verge of revolutionizing the construction industry by developing natural alternatives to fiberglass and other popular, non-biodegradable building materials.

Four UNT researchers recently received almost $600,000 to develop sustainable, energy-efficient and multifunctional bioproducts for construction purposes from the National Science Foundation's Partnership for Innovation program. The program connects researchers and small businesses in an effort to transform knowledge created by academic research into innovative solutions for the real world.

UNT will work with a number of composite manufacturers in Texas and Florida to develop composite panels that use plant fibers in the place of glass fibers. The UNT team will be led by Dr. Nandika D'Souza, professor of materials science and engineering, who will oversee the design and creation of the new materials. The composite materials could be used for construction, cars and aircraft and for a number of other uses. Currently, 3 to 5 billion pounds of fiberglass are produced annually.

D'Souza and her team have been studying the fibers produced by kenaf, a plant in the hibiscus family, as an alternative to glass and other synthetic fibers for several years. Kenaf fibers are attractive because they offer the same strength to weight ratio as glass fibers. The United States Department of Agriculture and LMC will provide the raw plant material to the researchers, who will then remove the outer layer of the plant and process it into useable fibers, which can be made into biomaterials.

In order to extract the fibers, the kenaf must be soaked in water where natural microorganisms can dissolve the non-essential plant material. Dr. Michael Allen, an assistant professor in UNT's Department of Biological Sciences, will work on streamlining this ancient process, by analyzing the present microorganisms using UNT's recently acquired next generation DNA sequencer. Once the interaction between the kenaf and the microorganisms is better understood, Allen is hopeful that he'll be able to alter the processing environment, and subsequently alter the properties of the fibers.

The project officially begins on Sept. 1 and will last two years. Dr. Vishwanath Prasad, UNT's vice president for research and economic development, and Dr. Yong Tao, chair of UNT's Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering, are also integral members of the research team. The team also will work with UNT's Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship and the UNT Office of Sustainability. The project harnesses the interdisciplinary interactions facilitated by the university's Renewable Bioproducts research cluster formed in 2009, which aims to "create sustainable solutions for the life cycle of consumer and industry products."

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