DG-Based Resins Spring into Plastics

Nebraska’s Laurel Biocomposite produces biomaterials for thermoset applications. This article appears in the May issue of EPM.
By Ann Bailey | April 11, 2016

Laurel Biocomposite LLC is using distillers grains to create biomaterials that will be used in lawn and gardening products across the United States this spring.

The Nebraska company, founded in 2007, moved into a new manufacturing plant in Laurel in 2013 and began converting distillers grains into a powder that can be used for thermoset applications and master-batched pellets used in thermoplastic applications.

Last year, Laurel Biocomposite made improvements to its 20,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Laurel. In addition to another production line, the company installed a lab extruder line, a small injection molding machine, testing equipment for physical properties and quality assurance equipment for verifying impact, tensile and flexural strengths and melt flows.

Laurel Biocomposite manufactures three types of resins: Bio-Res PLA with 98 percent biobased content, Bio-Res PE with 62 percent biobased content and Bio-Res powder with 100 percent biobased content.  Introduced in 2011, the company says the biomaterial is a cost-effective, environmentally friendly replacement with better performance properties in a variety of manufacturing processes than traditional petroleum-based resins. 

In December 2015, Laurel Biocomposite earned the USDA certified Biobased Product labels for its Bio-Res PLA, PPE and powder products. Products that meet the requirements of the BioPreferred program, created in the 2002 Farm Bill and expanded in 2008, are labeled to be easily identified by consumers with the intent of increasing use.

Laurel Biocomposite has a supply agreement for the distillers grains used in its BioRes products with Husker Ag LLC, Plainview, Nebraska. Husker Ag uses more than 26 million bushels of corn annually to produce about 76 MMgy of ethanol, plus wet and dry distillers grains.

At full capacity, Laurel Biocomposite will use about 15,000 tons of dried distillers grains annually, says Tim Bearnes, the company’s CEO. Laurel Biocomposite has capacity to produce 50 million pounds of Bio-Res products annually. The company markets its products to the plastic industry, the third-largest manufacturing industry in the U.S.

Laurel Biocomposite’s biomaterials, such as BioRes powder, offer a viable option to conventional plastic materials, without sacrificing physical properties. The powder, for example, replaces calcium carbonate in a sheet-molded or bulk-molded thermostat composite, at the same time cutting weight by up to 25 percent. That makes it especially suited for car and truck panel applications.

BioRes PLA products also can be injection molded or extruded. The products are easy to mix with resins for agricultural and lawn and garden products. The sustainable Laurel Biocomposite material replaces as much as 20 to 40 percent of the plastic in a variety of manufacturing processes. The Bio-Res powder, for example, is a replacement for traditional mineral fillers. Bio-Res pellets and powders, meanwhile, are available to its customers in master batches.

Consumer Products
Albany, Minnesota-based Master Mark, uses Laurel BioRes PLA in its green-colored anchor pins used to hold down sod or landscape fabric.

“The advantage to having a stake made from Laurel’s product is the product can break down over time,” says Nick Scherping, Master Mark purchasing and materials manager. “Currently, if someone were to lay sod down and stake it down with metal, they would have to remove the pin from the sod weeks down the road or let it rust to where it falls apart.” Conventional plastic stakes also need to be removed or they would remain forever in the ground, Scherping says.

“With the Laurel material, the consumer doesn’t need to remove it from the ground, if they choose to. The product will break down without having to worry about polluting the soil with plastic or metal.” 

The same is true for the fabric staking, Scherping says. “The fabric just needs to be staked down until there is a mulch or rock on top of the fabric,” he says. After that, the stake isn’t needed, and because the material in the Laurel Biocomposite product is biobased, it will break down over time. That means the homeowner won’t have to sift through the dirt next time they do landscaping to try and find the stake.

In Stillwater, Minnesota, SelfEco is producing garden pots with built-in plant food that are made from Laurel Biocomposite BioRes PLA. The nutrients come from the distillers grains used to manufacture the resin, says Danny Mishek, SelfEco president and CEO.

“It has the right amount of nutrients and proteins to allow the plant roots to take in the nutrients,” Mishek says. SelfEco pots also benefit the environment because they allow gardeners to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use and because the pots eventually break down, Mishek says.

“The material has been certified to be industrial compostable,” he says. Gardeners either can leave the pots in the ground to provide nutrients to the soil for the next gardening season or take what remains of the pots to an industrial compost center, Mishek says.

The SelfEco Pots will be available for sale this spring online and for limited sale at a handful of Minnesota garden centers, he says. This fall, the SelfEco pots will be rolled out to a larger distribution area for preorder for the 2017 gardening season.

Laurel Biocomposite’s Bearnes says he is optimistic about the need for and desire of other companies to move to a more environmentally friendly source for their products. “We are doing things here to continue to develop new products and better meet the needs of the customers… It’s a huge, huge market and huge use of material we create,” he says.

Now, most plastic products end up in the landfill, he notes. Laurel Biocomposite hopes to reduce that amount by increasing the amount of Bio-Resin products it sells to companies that will use them to create goods similar to the Master Mark anchor pins for sod and landscape plastic and the SelfEco Pots.

“We see that as a neat spot to be in,” Bearnes says.

Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine