Contact: Michael Tullier, APR, Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing
You just received that package in the mail, but now wonder what to do with the mound of packaging — most of it which cannot be recycled — that came with it. Tuskegee University researchers are attempting to address that issue with a new low-temperature plasma process that promises to repurpose these materials for use in a wide variety of applications in the consumer products, automotive, aerospace, food safety and medical industries.
Dr. Vijay Rangari, a professor in Tuskegee’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is leading a five-year, $1.5 million effort to improve the understanding of low-temperature plasma processes and interactions. This knowledge will be used to develop new polymer composites that have unique electronic, optical, mechanical and biological properties.
“While paper and cardboard packing materials can be recycled, Styrofoam, bubble wrap and petroleum-based materials cannot — leaving them to rot in landfills for hundreds of years, if not longer” Rangari explained. “During that time, those items — considered toxic to the environment — will leech dangerous chemicals into our soils and drinking water.”
Rangari clarified that the team’s research focus is not exclusive to packaging waste. Solutions for agricultural waste — materials remaining after fruits and vegetables are harvested and processed — also accumulate at high levels.
“Agricultural waste may be degradable, but often it’s a matter of finding places to store this material until it can degrade. Our research addresses the serious environmental issues of dealing with these and other possible waste products,” he said. “The field of plasma science and technology is rapidly advancing, as are opportunities for our faculty and students to remain at the forefront of identifying new opportunities for this science.”
Familiar forms of plasma include observable sources like the sun, stars, lightning, neon signs, television screen displays, welders’ torches and rocket exhaust. Plasma accounts for more than 90 percent of the observable universe and underpin several high-tech manufacturing industries.
To better understand this science, Tuskegee researchers will focus on plasma interactions with carbon and hydroxyapatite (a bone material) derived from natural waste materials to develop polymer composites. Rangari’s team will investigate how the use of low-temperature plasma interactions with these substances can further increase the strength and decrease the weight of the polymer composites created from them as possible replacements for plastics and petroleum-based materials.
In addition to expected advances in materials development, the project will advance plasma science and technology at Tuskegee and beyond.
“Through this grant, our students — the next generation of university and industry researchers — will be trained and prepared to succeed in it after graduation,” Rangari said.
At Tuskegee University, grant funding will increase opportunities for multi-institutional research collaboration; industry internships for students; summer undergraduate research programs; cross-institutional courses, workshops and training sessions for industry workers; research open houses; and K-12 teacher training sessions.
The Tuskegee research team also includes Dr. Michael Curry, associate professor of chemistry and adjunct faculty member of materials science and engineering; Dr. Mahesh Hosur, professor and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Dr. Tcherbi-Narteh Alfred, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Rangari’s efforts are part of a larger five-year, $20 million statewide project funded by the National Science Foundation and entitled “CPU2AL: Connecting the Plasma Universe to Plasma Technology in Alabama.” He serves as a co-principal investigator of the overarching project, which is led by the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
The statewide research partnership includes seven other Alabama institutions besides UAH and Tuskegee. They include Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Auburn University, Oakwood University, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of South Alabama. Funding comes through NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which seeks to enhance research competitiveness of universities and other entities by strengthening STEM capacity and capability.
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