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Biofuel Economics: Biocomposites - New Uses for North Dakota Agricultural Fibers and Oils

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Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist
The goal of NDSU’s newly created BioEpic Center is to identify new markets for biobased value-added products that result in greater profit potential than existing sales in agricultural commodity markets.

By Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist

NDSU Extension Service

At recent NDSU field days, I passed around several samples of new biocomposite materials developed by NDSU’s Chad Ulven. Dennis Weisenborn, also with NDSU, and Ulven and I received a grant from the National Canola Research Council to develop new biocomposite materials and identify new market opportunities for the products. During the past several weeks, I have received numerous questions about the construction of these products, their physical properties and market applications.

While this column focuses on the economics of biofuels, we need to keep in mind that biofuels have great market potential beyond transportation. Biocomposites are one such market opportunity. The goal of NDSU’s newly created BioEpic Center is to identify new markets for biobased value-added products that result in greater profit potential than existing sales in agricultural commodity markets.

The biocomposite samples I passed around look very similar to fiberglass, which is one type of composite, but not biobased. Recall that fiberglass is produced by laying out glass fibers that are either in mat or shredded form and covering them with a catalized resin that binds them in place. As the resin hardens, a very durable and lightweight material is formed.

While fiberglass was one of the original composites, newer composite materials, such as carbon fiber and plastics, now replace fiberglass. Composites are now a multimillion dollar industry and widely used in the production of automobiles, recreational vehicles, farm implements, aircraft and consumer goods because intricate and complex shapes that are lightweight and strong can be formed more easily than with metal. In agriculture, the hoods of many new tractors are formed from composite materials.

With increasing consumer interest in renewable and environmentally friendly products, manufacturers are searching for biobased replacements for fiberglass, resins and other petroleum-based composites. In the samples I passed around, either the fiber material or the resin was derived from an agricultural product, so they were biobased. For example, several biocompsites samples were made from sunflower, sugar beet, sisal, flax or distillers grain plant fibers. Potentially, resins could come from any renewable agricultural oil derived from canola, sunflowers, flax or safflowers.

Each combination of biobased fiber and resin yields a product with unique physical properties, such as tensile strength, rigidity or weight. As such, the market application for each combination varies depending on the properties deemed most important. The goal of this research project is to compare and contrast physical properties for each biocomposite sample and identify potential market applications.

Q: What is the opportunity for using hemp as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol? (Wayne H., Ray, N.D.)

A: Hemp has the potential to compete with many plant feedstocks for conversion to ethanol. One drawback is that acreage is presently limited, which may hinder research and development. A more important challenge likely will be economics. Hemp fibers are highly sought after for both crafts and constuction materials, such as the composites described above. Therefore, strong demand for hemp fibers may make it too expensive for conversion to a biofuel.


NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Cole Gustafson, (701) 231-7096, cole.gustafson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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