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Researchers to Use Biobased Coating Process to Develop Sustainable Packaging Solution

Published on 2013-04-04. Author : SpecialChem

Ramaswamy Nagarajan, the 41-year-old plastics engineering associate professor is one of the University's leading researchers on sustainability and renewable materials, having devoted more than decade of his career developing products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances.

Nagarajan and his graduate students have won awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their efforts. In 2011, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell named him the University Research Champion of the Year. Last year, Nagarajan was appointed co-editor of the Journal of Renewable Materials. Published by Scrivener Publishing, the new periodical features peer-reviewed original research from all over the world on monomers, polymers and additives obtained from renewable/bio-based resources. Its maiden issue came out in January.

The sustainability projects Nagarajan is involved with at UMass Lowell that requires bio-based coating process:

Biodegradable Plastic Film for Packaging

Packaging is one of the major uses of plastics, accounting for more than 30 percent of the market. Plastic food-packaging films often require high resistance to moisture and oxygen to maintain freshness of the food for extended periods. Unfortunately, the bulk of the plastics used for flexible packaging are not biodegradable and end up polluting the land and sea if not properly recycled.

Nagarajan, together with Prof. Aldo Crugnola and Prof. Emeritus Nick Schott in Plastics Engineering and Raul Raudales of the Mesoamerica Institute, are developing a packaging solution that is bio-based, sustainable and economically viable. This involves coating the polymer film with combinations of biodegradable and bio-derived materials such as chitosan (from shells of crabs and shrimp), plant-derived fatty acids and nano clay to improve the film's barrier properties. The coating process also uses environmentally friendly solvents (predominantly water).

"We envision this approach would provide a greener alternative to petroleum-derived non-biodegradable plastics used in commercial food packaging," says Nagarajan.

Other Projects Include:

Making Plastics Flame-Resistant

Plastic materials have become an indispensable part of modern life due to their versatility, durability and low cost. However, most of the commercially produced plastics are inherently flammable and require additives called flame retardants (FR) to reduce the risk of fire accidents. "We are developing environmentally benign, non-toxic, halogen-free flame retardants using polyphenols, which are synthesized using bioderived phenols such as cardanol," explains Nagarajan. "Cardanol is one of the main components of cashew nut shell liquid, a waste product of cashew nut processing."

His collaborators include Prof. Jayant Kumar in Physics as well as Ramanathan Nagarajan (no relation to Ramaswamy Nagarajan) and Ravi Mosurkal in the U.S. Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC).

Environmentally Friendly Detergents

Nagarajan is collaborating with Asst. Prof. Bridgette Budhlall in Plastics Engineering and Prof. Daniel Sandman in Chemistry to develop a new class of "greener" surfactants as a safe, biodegradable and completely bio-based alternative to toxic nonylphenolethoxylates (NPEs). Although effective as cleaning agents, NPEs can accumulate in the environment, posing a threat to both humans and aquatic life.

Biocatalytic Synthesis of Conjugated Polymers

Nagarajan is collaborating with Kumar and Sandman as well as Lynne Samuelson and Ferdinando Bruno from NSRDEC on using biocatalysts - enzymes and enzyme mimics - to prepare conjugated and electrically conducting polymers.

About UMass Lowell

UMass Lowell is a public university committed to preparing the students for work in the real world- solving real problems and helping real people - by providing an affordable high-quality education. It strives to transform students to succeed in college, as lifelong learners and as informed citizens in a global environment. UMass Lowell offers affordable, experience-based undergraduate and graduate academic programs taught by internationally recognized faculty who conduct research to expand the horizons of knowledge.

Source: UMass Lowell


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