UNT Research, Volume 17, 2008 Page: 27
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L L I_ r,
material's weight to just I to 2 percent by swelling it in a chemical bath
that weakens the bonds between its nanometer-thin structural plates.
"I have an engineering approach," she says. "I'm looking at
properties. I study stiffness. I look at architectures. I tend not to
have a viewpoint partial to any particular materials or solutions."
D'Souza's work is supported by various federal grants, led by
one from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and
Engineering Center. NSRDEC wants to reduce waste left behind
after military operations, so it is funding up to $40,000 annually
for three years to develop biodegradable fiberboard and paper coatings
used for soldiers' MRE packaging containers.
The military's goal is to have biodegradable and compostable
MRE fiberboard containers that are lighter but still meet perform-
"Annually, there are more than 40 million MREs procured by
the military with about 14,000 tons of MRE packaging waste each
year," says Jo Ann Ratto, the principal investigator at NSRDEC
on this "Lightweight and Compostable Military Packaging" project
funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Environmental
Research and Development Program. "This coupled with the rising
costs of disposal has dramatically increased the need to investigate
alternative materials to combat ration packaging waste.
"Dr. D'Souza's expertise and innovation in polymer nanocom-
posites first led us to work with her on MRE food packaging,
and she has proved to be a collaborator on whom I can trust and
rely. She is dedicated to her students and her research."
NSRDEC also funds a three-year grant to investigate biodegrad-
able packaging foams that could potentially be disposed of in the
marine environment. This research is in support of the U.S. Navy's
Waste Reduction Afloat Protects the Sea (WRAPS) program.
The foams are made with supercritical carbon dioxide (a gas that
flows like a liquid). Unlike conventional foam manufacturing
processes that release harmful chemicals such as ammonia, the carbon
dioxide supercritical foam technology is considered environmentally
benign, D'Souza says.
She is confident about the ultimate success of her projects
and says that she hasn't encountered technical obstacles so much as
difficulty finding the time and resources to do the work.
INTERNATI()NAN L'I'Pl RI
D'Souza plans to look to her peers for support. She is con-
vinced that scientists in other disciplines and from the developing
world can be the best partners in helping turn good ideas into
usable technology, and she is working to develop the research part-
nerships to do this.
The kenaf fibers she's been using to create another new breed
of bioplastics that also have improved structural properties come
from the greenhouse of Kent Chapman, professor of biological
sciences and director of UNT's Center for Plant Lipid Research.
"I think the futuristic lab requires interdisciplinary collabora-
tion," says D'Souza, adding that kenaf-based products might include
a fiberglass substitute, paper items or canvasses.
Medical applications in collagen and cornea prostheses form
the basis of her partnership with Dan Dimitrijevich, director of
the Laboratories of Human Cell and Tissue Engineering at the
Cardiovascular Research Institute of the UNT Health Science
Center at Fort Worth.
And D'Souza isn't stopping at UNT. She is reaching out to
researchers in other countries to help her solve the challenges she
encounters in her lab such as the need for additional plant-derived
materials to test and use in the creation of new bioplastics.
For the last two years, she has been partnering with Lucia H.
Innocentini-Mei, a chemical engineer in the School of Chemical
Engineering at the State University of Campinas-UNICAMP in
Brazil, to obtain a bacteria-based product that can be used to create
a potentially environmentally friendly substitute for traditional
plastics such as polyethylene and polystyrene.
"Collaborating with other researchers is key to solving some
of these global issues," D'Souza says. In developing countries
researchers learn to be "creative with what they have" because the
money just isn't there to import chemicals, she says.
"They have experience synthesizing the chemicals from local
resources, but they don't have the instrumentation we (in Western
nations) have to measure the results."
A Ilawi;r lu I rul,
D'Souza thinks she is perhaps two years from achieving her
goals in developing paper biocoatings.
However, she expects to have preliminary testing results soon
for the degradation of supercritical foams in oceans. While she
hopes that some of her first products will be in commercial
production within a few years, D'Souza knows adoption may be
slow initially because bioplastics will cost 20 to 30 percent more
than conventional plastics.
But she doesn't expect that drawback to remain.
"I believe the cost of today's oil-based solutions will go up so
much that bioplastics will be economically viable," she says.
So bioplastics would not only reduce landfill clogging and lessen
reliance on foreign oil, they also would be cost effective in the
reasonably foreseeable future - a perfect environmental trifecta.
"In the past, bio-products had been inferior and performed
worse than products made from fossil fuel-based materials. But
that is no longer the case," D'Souza says. "We are making progress.
"The mechanical properties of these new bioplastics are hold-
ing up - they are structurally sound, can perform at the same
high level and do not cause the same damage to our environment." U
UNT RESEARCH 2008 OO 27
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University of North Texas. UNT Research, Volume 17, 2008, periodical, 2008; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc115031/m1/27/: accessed August 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting University Relations, Communications & Marketing department for UNT.