UNT professor leads research in plant-based building material

Matthew Brown / Intern Writer

Because of research taking place at UNT, a bamboo-like plant may be the future of eco-friendly building materials and insulation.

In the future, kenaf could be used as a biodegradable building material, which could substitute for plywood in construction. The plant also holds potential as an insulation material. It is 20 percent more efficient while still remaining cost competitive with other modern insulation methods. Additionally, associate mechanical and energy engineering professor Sheldon Shi has created a magnetic material from the core of kenaf that can be used to remove contaminates from water.

Mechanical and energy engineering professor Nandika D’Sousa is at the helm of UNT’s research on kenaf, funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. She said she has been presented with the challenge of making kenaf commercially viable.

“I don’t think they tried to make it commercially,” D’Sousa said. “That was our proposal, to see what are the things the industry needs to overcome before it can become a full fledged .”

To create usable material from kenaf, it must first be broken down. In rural areas of Asia, kenaf fibers are placed in rivers where they break down after about 20 days and are then used to create rope or cloth material. This process isn’t feasible for mass production because of the time required and the inconsistency in material quality.

D’Sousa credits biology professors Brian Ayre and Michael Allen with creating a biological method that breaks the fiber down within three days.

“We used an enzyme [called] pectinase,” Ayre said. “It degrades and loosens up the material and releases the fibers from the plant.”

Ayre said the process is very accurate and can produce similar samples through different growing seasons and growing techniques.

One of the large benefits of kenaf is the short time it takes to grow and the small amount of water it requires, said Andres Garcia, doctoral student and research assistant to D’Sousa.

“Kenaf grows in about three to six months, depending on the season,” Garcia said. “It’s an amazing plant as far as growing capabilities.”

Now, D’Sousa says she is looking for a commercial company to use kenaf to demonstrate its credibility and legitimacy as an eco-friendly product.

“I like the idea of less fossil fuels,” D’Sousa said. “The added advantage to everything we do is the social impact.”

D’Sousa will be in Kansas this week to share her research findings on kenaf to the Bio Environmental Polymer Society.

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