Two doctoral candidates at The Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, run jointly by UT and ORNL are working towards a zero-waste manufacturing process by using byproducts for good. Specifically, Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle are working to utilize lignin, the pulpy fibrous mass remaining after plants are processed in biofuel production. The pair have developed a process to turn lignin into a product that would aid both the earth and the people who work it, quite literally turning one person’s trash into another one’s treasure.
“Lignin is a naturally occurring product found in all trees and grasses that results in 50 million tons of waste a year in the paper industry alone,” said Bova. “We have developed a process that allows us to make that lignin biodegradable and turn it into the large rolls of mulch film that farmers used to block weeds, retain moisture and soil temperature, and improve crop yield.”
Currently, lignin is severely underutilized – only 2 percent of it ends up in commercial use, whereas the rest ends up in landfills or being burned as a low value fuel. Compare this to the fact that farmers spend as much as $300 per acre to dispose of the current plastic they use on their crops, as well as the additional benefit that Bova and Beegle’s product is biodegradable and would be able to be plowed right back into the soil after harvest. This saves the farmers time and money, as well as keeps both wasted lignin and the plastic out of our landfills.
They call their company Grow Bioplastics, and have been seeing success in various entrepreneurial contests. Locally, they won first place in the Boyd Venture Challenge and won $1,500 in the Vol Court Pitch Competition. Additionally, they are finalists in Rice University’s Business Plan Competition (where they stand to win a $450,000 grand prize in addition to a $5,000 people’s choice prize determined by online voting), and are participating in the Charlotte Venture Challenge, the Megawatt Ventures Challenge in Florida, and a number of other clean-tech competitions around the country.