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UConn Advance

Research turns trash into sinks
By Luis Mocete (February 28, 1997)

When UPS packages arrive at Chris White's office, he is more than willing to bet they aren't from his wife-- even though she lives in Boston. More likely, the packages are filled with garbage from companies throughout Connecticut.

"I polled 200 companies in the state and found that a number of them have significant waste-disposal concerns," said White, a postdoctoral associate at the Institute of Materials Science. "By talking with these companies it seemed that most of them would not have these worries if they could make new products out of their garbage."

Through the Critical Technologies Program, White and Montgomery Shaw, a professor of chemical engineering, are working to develop products composed entirely of waste materials.

Their research has enabled them to use urea-formaldehyde grit (UFG), a thermoset plastic material made from grinding cosmetic caps or buttons, as a filler instead of calcium carbonate to produce sinks and countertops.

"Some of the advantages of a using UFG as a filler, according to industry tests, are that it is much tougher than the traditional calcium carbonate-filled sink," White said. "It is also half as heavy because the UFG has a lower density than the calcium carbonate. If it costs the same to produce both materials, you definitely have a lower cost in the shipping, handling and installation of a UFG-filled sink."

UFG also can be used to make plastic pallets.

"Traditionally, pallets are made from wood, but when damaged, they are difficult to repair," White said. "With plastic pallets that are damaged, you can grind them up and make a new one."

But there are two problems: Traditional plastics don't hold up well if they are heavily loaded, and the most cost-effective plastics aren't stiff or tough enough to use in pallets.

"Plastic pallets need to support heavy loads without bending substantially," Shaw explained. "Wood is very good for making pallets because it can hold a lot of weight. That is why plastic is having a hard time competing."

Strong as wood
Enter UFG. Blended with recycled milk-bottle resin, the resulting mixture has the potential to produce plastic pallets that are as strong as wood and cost effective too. In addition, the pallets can be pulled apart into two pieces that will fit into each other, which in turn will save space. This allows three times as many plastic pallets to fit into one truck compared to wooden ones. They also have the ability to be easily colored.

"Coloring pallets will be very useful in many applications," White said. "If you had the ability to color-code your warehouse by pallet color, it would eliminate confusion. For example, you might want to stock your international shipments on blue pallets, while products that should stay in-house might be stacked on red pallets."

Composition Materials Corporation Inc. in Fairfield may make the pallets, White said.

"Our job is not to produce the final products, but to provide companies with the information from our research that they need to produce the products on their own," Shaw said.

"We look at the chemistry, the hardness and the flow properties of the waste materials to understand what aspects can be used to develop materials for new products," White added.

The two are working with 11 companies on their projects, six of them in Connecticut.

"If these products come to fruition, it will foster new manufacturing in Connecticut," White said. "I do not think that is out of the realm of possibilities. Connecticut has been very far-sighted in funding this critical technology approach. The payoff will come years later, as evidenced in California and North Carolina. There, the states invested money for research in their universities, and over time these efforts helped develop the tremendous computer industry of Silicon Valley and the biological industries of Triangle Park." .

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