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Turning Plant Waste To Plastics, Researchers Hope To Save the Pyramids

USU researchers are turning plant waste into usable products in Egypt.

Egyptian farmers grow crops along the fertile banks of the Nile, providing necessary resources for the surrounding communities, but also generating significant waste from crops such as cotton, bananas and rice.

“You have two choices: you either burn it or plow it into the soil. But, if they plow it they risk disease and other things, so it’s easier to burn it,” said Utah State University professor of biological engineering Foster Agblevor.

He said when the waste products are burned, acidic gases are released into the atmosphere, eventually settling on and decomposing the limestone pyramids and other historical monuments.

Agblevor said the burning also creates pollution and releases potentially-carcinogenic compounds that can hinder human health.

To solve these problems, Agblevor and his colleagues, with a $121,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, have found a way to convert the problematic waste into liquids high in phenol, which can be used to make bio-based plastics and adhesives. He said these liquids provide a viable alternative to petroleum resources.

The liquids, according to Agblevor, can also be converted into sugars, which can be used in the construction of buildings as insulating bio-foam.  

Agblevor said the farmers they work with are excited to get involved once they understand there is a problem.

“Those creating a problem are not quite aware of the problem,” Agblevor said. “When you go there and then you talk to them, then you see their eyes open; there is a lot of excitement over there. So, it’s not like you are going to impose some technology on them and trying to dictate to them, but they are all excited and they are participating.”

Agblevor will work with Egyptian researchers at the National Research Council in Cairo.  The group plans to develop their own catalyst to do conversions initially, but hope Egyptian private investors will pick up on the opportunity and continue developing the work.