North Texas Daily

Students develop biodegradable foam

Students develop biodegradable foam

March 26
16:41 2013

Melissa Wylie / Senior Staff Writer

Foam is found in ceilings, walls and ends up in landfills, where it remains indefinitely, intact and unchanged.

In the materials science and engineering lab at Discovery Park, a team of three graduate students is researching how to increase the biodegradability of these foams made from compostable plastic.

“All of mankind will eventually want polymers to degrade completely,” said Mangesh Nar, materials science and engineering graduate student.

Materials science and engineering professor Nandika D’Souza is the faculty advisor for the project, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“When there is no oil and the other polymers are not available, then this will be a very important need,” D’Souza said. “We have to finish figuring it out now before there is no alternative, because packaging is important.”

D’Souza said she began her foam research more than eight years ago when developing marine-degradable food packaging for the Marines.

Her team is currently working to find an alternative to polyurethane-based foams, which are commonly found in building construction materials, D’Souza said.

The group receives small, round disks of plastic commercially made from a biodegradable petroleum substitute and then air pockets are inserted to increase the volume and amount, Nar said.

Next, the foam is processed by various machines in the lab, exposing the material to different composting environments to see what percentage of the foam is broken down in a set period of time, Nar said.

Though students studying plastics are the smallest group within the materials science program, their research is widely applicable, said Andres Garcia, materials science and engineering graduate student.

“I think we’ve been very lucky,” Garcia said. “We’re testing things that we’re making and results are coming with good expectations and they are matching what we thought, and better, sometimes.”

Each student is also working on an individual side project. Garcia is developing the compostable foams and Nar is looking into biomedical applications.

Nar is using the foamed material to create fibers that could one day be used as heart stents, which are small tubes that open up blocked arteries, he said.

Heart stents are usually made from metal, but the porous fiber would make it easier to inject and monitor a drug and would be better for the body because the material is compatible with bodily systems, Nar said.

The students plan to submit their findings to publications, which will be beneficial in creating awareness of the polymer industry and new developments, Nar said.

“When we publish, the whole world comes to know what is happening,” Nar said.

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