Student startup converts waste lignin to mulch film for farm use

By University of Tennessee | April 18, 2016

A zero-waste manufacturing process has long been a dream for industries, especially in areas where businesses believe their byproducts hold great potential.

In the production of biofuels that waste product is known as lignin—a pulpy, fibrous mass remaining after plants are processed. It can utilize as much as 70 percent of the material created by biofuel refining, so any advancement in finding a use for it holds obvious monetary and environmental potential.

Enter Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, a pair of doctoral candidates in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which is run jointly by UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The pair has developed a process to turn that lignin into a product that would aid both the earth and the people who work it, quite literally turning one person’s trash into another one’s treasure.

“Lignin is a naturally occurring product found in all trees and grasses that results in 50 million tons of waste a year in the paper industry alone,” said Bova. “We have developed a process that allows us to make that lignin biodegradable and turn it into the large rolls of mulch film that farmers use to block weeds, retain moisture and soil temperature, and improve crop yield.”

Bova said that currently only 2 percent of lignin winds up in commercial use, with the vast majority of it making its way to landfills or being burned by producers as a low value fuel.

At the same time, he noted, farmers spend as much as $300 per acre to dispose of the current plastic they use on their crops.

“Our product would be able to be plowed into farmers’ soils after harvest, where it would degrade naturally and save them all of the money they currently spend on removal and disposal,” said Bova.

Bova and Beegle, who first met as undergraduates at the University of Toledo in Ohio, developed the technology along with ORNL’s Amit Naskar.

Their partnership was cemented when they worked as teammates in the Bredesen Center’s team entrepreneurship course led by Tom Rogers—also the director of ORNL’s Industrial Partnerships—and Beth Papanek, another Bredesen Center student with experience in entrepreneurship and tech transfer.

Calling their company Grow Bioplastics, they have entered a number of entrepreneurial contests, finding success in a number of them.

They are currently finalists in Rice University’s Business Plan Competition and are participating in the Charlotte Venture Challenge, the Megawatt Ventures Challenge in Florida, and a number of other clean-tech competitions around the country.

As a finalist in the competition at Rice, Grow Bioplastics is up for a $450,000 grand prize, in addition to a $5,000 people’s choice prize determined by online voting.

Locally, they won first place in the Boyd Venture Challenge and won $1,500 in the Vol Court Pitch Competition.

“If we have continued success, we’ll be looking to set up our own research and development lab soon and applying for Small Business Innovation Research grants to further fund our testing and product development,” said Bova. “Everything is happening so fast, and we’re still working on finishing our PhDs, but it’s all so exciting.”

Bova said each win brings them closer to their goals, and they could begin field-testing prototypes as early as this summer, with full-scale field trials of their biodegradable plastics used on crops throughout Tennessee next spring.