From man-made grain to plastics additive
I t's not often that a development from the 19th century can benefit today's plastics industry, but a little-known grain called triticale may do just that.
It’s not often that a development from the 19th century can benefit today’s plastics industry, but a little-known grain called triticale may do just that.
First bred in laboratories in Scotland almost 150 years ago, triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye that combines the good grain quality of the former with the disease and environmental tolerance of the latter. Traditionally used mostly for forage or animal feed, the grain has only recently been made into a commercially viable crop, finding its way into health food store products, breakfast cereals — and, if a group of Canadian researchers is successful, into plastics products, as well.
For the past year, a large-scale project has been underway to develop triticale into a suitable additive for use in plas- tics processing. The project was initiated through Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, and Agriculture Canada. Funding is approximately $10 million per year, and comes from the Alberta provincial government, and also from the Agricultural Bioproducts Innovation Program (ABIP), a multi-year program that seeks integrate resources from academic, public, and private sectors to build greater research capacity in agricultural bioproducts and bioprocesses.
Among the approximately 20 agencies and organizations involved is the National Research Council Canada’s Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI), in Boucherville, Que. “Our mandate in the project is to adapt our thermoplastics starch research to the triticale grain,” said Michel Huneault, project manager at NRC-IMI.
Like a lot of bio-additives projects, Huneault continued, the push behind this particular effort comes from the agricultural industry, as a way of increasing the value of biomass, and also offering an alternative to expensive petroleum.
What separates the triticale project, however, is the nature of the hybrid grain itself. “Biopolymer research based on corn and other types of biomass can be limited by government regulation because these materials are consumed as food crops,” Huneault explained. “Because triticale is not commonly used as a food crop, there’s very little governmental regulation surrounding it, and this allows us to modify the triticale genome to make it more suitable for use as an additive.”
Another advantage of triticale is the plentiful nature of both wheat and rye in Canada. “It’s difficult to grow corn in Western Canada, for example, whereas wheat and rye are readily available, and also inexpensive,” Huneault said.
In other ways, however, the grain shares the limitations inherent in organic additives. “As with other naturally-occurring additives, the main limitation in using triticale with thermoplastics is the processing temperature,” he said. “As an additive, triticale will work well with resins that can be processed below 200C, such as polyethylene and polypropylene.”
The triticale project is still several years away from completion. “Like all biopolymer research projects, progress is somewhat hampered by crop availability, which depends on growing seasons,” Huneault said. “At present, NRC-IMI is still in the process of receiving different samples of triticale for analysis.”
Huneault is confident nevertheless that the end result will be a reliable, commercially available bio-based additive. “In addition to offering an inexpensive, naturally-occurring alternative to traditional additives, the added advantage of a triticale-based additive is that it won’t take away product from food crop supply.”
NRC-IMI (Boucherville, Que.);
www.imi.cnrc-nrc.gc.ca; (450) 641-5000