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Published June 28 2013

For c2renew, waste is an opportunity

Fargo - Maybe agricultural waste isn’t waste after all.

A Fargo-based business named c2renew is combining agriculture’s leftovers such as sunflower, oat hulls, sugar beet pulp and flax stalks with plastics to create biocomposites that can be used in endless ways.

“Basically, we take residual biomass from different agricultural processes and we manipulate those into fillers for plastics,” said Chad Ulven, co-founder and chief technology officer for the company.

Biocomposites can be a cost saver for businesses in some situations because it incorporates low-cost material as filler. Incorporating biomaterials into plastics also reduces dependency on petroleum, Ulven said.

Ulven, 34, sees c2renew as a way to add value to the crops farmers produce and to what agriculture-related businesses process by using more of what is grown.

C2renew can use materials that would otherwise go to the landfill, be burned in the field or go to low-level use, he said.

Adding biomaterials to plastics produces a more rigid plastic than petroleum alone, Ulven said. The necessary rigidity is now achieved by adding minerals to plastics, he said.

Those minerals are “about twice the density of our biomass filler,” Ulven said, “so when we go to replace a mineral-filled plastic, we actually lightweight their product by switching.”

C2renew is still in its early development stages, said Ulven, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at North Dakota State University. He and fellow North Dakota native Cory Kratcha, 31, founded the company. It was incorporated in 2011 and is a tenant at the technology incubator at the NDSU Research and Technology Park in north Fargo.

“We’re not at full production level, but we are producing material,” said Kratcha, who grew up in Mapleton. They expect to be at full production later this year.

“Right now, we’re doing probably close to a dozen different molding trials with reputable companies,” Ulven said.

Ulven and Kratcha are focusing their marketing on the agriculture sector. Among the items being developed are handles for agricultural equipment, shrouds and guards for engine compartments and some consumer goods, said Ulven, who grew up near Walcott, N.D.

In addition to working with biocomposites, Ulven and Kratcha offer engineering services. Ulven sees that as something that can help the c2renew financially as it develops the biocomposite side of things, although they plan to continue to have engineering services part of the business permanently.

C2renew grew out of Ulven’s research at NDSU. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in materials engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, working mostly with synthetic compounds. He also worked for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds north of Baltimore.

When Ulven took a job at NDSU, he turned toward working biological materials into plastics to form biocomposites, developing a methodology of mixing different kinds of biomass materials.

Mixing biological materials means “that we’re never dependent on one particular biomass,” Ulven said.

If it’s a bad year for sunflowers, for example, they’ll still be able to supply their product to customers, he said.

While bioplastics account for less than 1 percent of total plastic production globally, it’s a growing market, said Melissa Hockstad of SPI, a plastics industry trade association.

“This is probably one of the hottest areas right now in the plastics industry,” said Hockstad, vice president, science, technology and regulatory affairs for SPI. “We’re seeing growth rates of about 20 percent year over year with new production, new innovation coming on line.”

SPI, based in Washington, D.C., defines a bioplastic as a material that that is biodegradable and/or has bio-based content.

The sources of that content can be diverse.

“We are seeing new plastics being made from everything from sugar cane to corn to chicken feathers to algae,” she said.

The c2renew model isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Ulven said they talk to the client about what they need and design accordingly.

And c2renew’s materials can be created to be either long-lasting or relatively short-lived.

These biocomposites are “just as robust as the materials they’re replacing or they can be designed to be biodegradable,” Ulven said. “The technology’s really flexible.”

Kratcha is excited about the company.

“There’s a lot of potential going forward in this particular market,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734