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Published September 23, 2011, 12:00 AM

Crops to play role in coatings

Research shows strong potential
Fargo - Dean Webster envisions a day when lots of things will be coated by oils gleaned from soybeans, flax and sunflowers blended with a resin made from sugar beets.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

Fargo - Dean Webster envisions a day when lots of things will be coated by oils gleaned from soybeans, flax and sunflowers blended with a resin made from sugar beets.

The researcher and his team at North Dakota State University are working in the emerging field of biomaterials – work that could open up new markets for farm commodities.

The NDSU researchers’ discoveries have the potential to enable a wide variety of new applications, Webster believes.

Significantly, the new family of bio-based resins and coatings are free of formaldehyde and BPA, additives that carry health risks.

Also, because the feedstocks are crops and therefore renewable, they’re environmentally friendly.

“There’s a huge amount of excitement out there for new bio-based materials,” Webster says. One estimate projects that the biorenewable chemical industry will reach $5 billion by 2015.

The discoveries already are drawing wide interest in the coatings world, and manufacturers have been asking Webster about the potential of his research.

“This technology that we’ve developed has a lot of variations,” he says. “We’d like to think of it as a platform technology. We can tailor this to a broad number of applications.”

The coatings, which adhere well to metals, compare favorably with coatings based on petroleum, Webster says. They also have mechanical properties that are superior to those of other bio-based materials.

Webster’s team still is investigating the economics of producing the resin coatings on a commercial scale, and so far the indications are the costs are not “out of line” with the industry wants but Webster said, “The jury’s out right now on costs.”

He added: “My sense of the market right now is people are definitely interested in bio-based materials because they’re renewable. We’re hearing from all sorts of companies in a lot of different industries.”

Webster has been engaged in research involving polymers and coatings for more than 20 years, and recently received the Roy W. Tess Award in Coatings from the American Chemical Society.

Before joining NDSU, Webster worked in research and development for Sherwin-Williams in Chicago and at Eastman Chemical Co.

His research at NDSU, where he is a professor in the Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, North Dakota Renewable Energy Council and the North Dakota Soybean Council.

The North Dakota Soybean Council is following Webster’s work, which it regards as holding the possibility of creating new opportunities for soybean oil derivatives in high value-added products.

“We’re trying to find new uses for soybeans to expand our markets,” said Monte Peterson, chairman of the North Dakota Soybean Council, who farms near Valley City. “I think the prospects are very good.”

If all goes well with future research, Webster said, the new bio-based coatings from crops grown in North Dakota could reach market in a few years.

“We could see something starting to appear in two or three years,” he said. “That would be a best-case scenario.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522