LSU AgCenter scientist looks at sugar byproducts for making polymers

Olivia McClure, Black, Liz  |  2/22/2016 5:16:40 PM

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Close-up of polymers made using byproducts of sugar processing. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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Michael Vincent, a postdoctoral researcher at the LSU AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute, displays three samples of polymers made using byproducts of sugar processing. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

(02/22/16) BATON ROUGE, La. – An LSU AgCenter scientist is exploring using byproducts of sugar processing to make polymers.

Michael Vincent, a postdoctoral researcher at the Audubon Sugar Institute, has made polymers using aconitic acid derived from molasses and bagasse, the fibrous material left after sugar is extracted from sugarcane. Depending on which chemical reaction is employed, Vincent can make a polyester polymer or a high-strength resin.

The hardness and flexibility of the materials can be fine-tuned with different formulations, Vincent said. Some formulations make a more bendable product, while adding bagasse appears to make a harder and more durable polymer.

Sugar production in Louisiana — an industry valued at $747 million in 2014 — leaves behind more than 650,000 tons of waste after milling every year. Bagasse can be used as boiler fuel to produce steam that powers sugar mills, but there are few other uses. Most of the molasses is sold for animal feed.

Vincent’s work is part of the AgCenter’s Sustainable Bioproducts Initiative, which is funded by a five-year, $17.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal is to find ways to make biofuels and other products using infrastructure already in Louisiana because of the sugar industry.

“There’s literally tons and tons of bagasse that are produced each year, and we need to find something to do with it,” Vincent said. “The sugar industry has been in Louisiana for over 220 years, and as a native Louisianan, it’s something I’d like to see continue and strengthen. Sugar is very important, and if we can find ways to increase the value of the byproducts, that can only help the industry and the state.”

Vincent hopes to find industry partners to help identify uses for the polymers — and he has already thought of a few possible applications. The polyester could be used to make small goods like cell phone cases. The resin could be used for coatings on consumer products and to make lightweight composite parts for the automotive industry.

The polyester and resin both have advantages over products already on the market, Vincent said. The polyester can stand high temperatures without degrading. And the resin, while similar in consistency to epoxies often used in home improvement projects, is made from a renewable resource.

Vincent continues to search for other polymers that can be made using sugarcane byproducts.

“We want to have different materials and have a portfolio of options that private partners could take and find out if it suits their needs,” Vincent said.

He is working on the polymers with Giovanna Aita, an associate professor at Audubon; John Pojman, an LSU chemistry professor; and Pojman’s graduate student, Arturo Carranza.

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