A young start-up, Tennessee-based Grow Bioplastics, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for $225,000 to conduct research and development work on lignin-biomass based biodegradable plastics for agricultural applications, specifically plastic mulches.
The company's biodegradable product offers an alternative to plastic mulch films used by farmers around the world. Current non-degradable plastics must be removed at the end of each growing season and are often sent to a landfill, because they are difficult to recycle. Grow Bioplastics' biodegradable film can be plowed into the soil after each use, offering a solution to the additional labor costs and environmental impact of current films.
Founded in 2016 by University of Tennessee Knoxville graduate students Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, Grow Bioplastics is creating a technology platform for lignin-based, naturally degradable and compostable plastics that serve as drop-in replacements for petroleum-based resins. Lignin is the second most abundant natural biopolymer in the world and primary waste product of biorefineries and paper mills. The new lignin-based plastics can then be plowed into the soil after use, allowing them to be used as replacements for petroleum-based plastics that are not biodegradable and difficult to recycle.
"The National Science Foundation supports small businesses with the most innovative, cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to become great commercial successes and make huge societal impacts," said Barry Johnson, director of the NSF's Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. "We hope that this seed funding will spark solutions to some of the most important challenges of our time across all areas of science and technology."
"Being selected for this competitive award from the NSF is a huge step for our company," said Tony Bova, CEO and co-Founder of Grow Bioplastics. "We are very excited to announce two partnerships on this grant. The first with Glucan Biorenewables, LLC to use their novel gamma-valerolactone derived lignin streams, and the second with Dr. David Harper, associate professor at the University of Tennessee Center for Renewable Carbon, to help us evaluate the processability of our materials."
He added: "This funding will help us validate the fundamental science behind our lignin-based plastic technology, allow us to hire our first employees here in East Tennessee, and bring us one step closer to realizing our vision for a socially and environmentally driven business model to support a circular economy."
The company's first products will be plastic pellets that can be processed into blown or cast plastic mulch films and thermoformed or injection moulded trays and pots for agricultural and horticultural applications. Bova and Beegle anticipate first commercial sales of their products to begin in 2019.