This Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) project from University of North Texas will create an innovative partnership among farmers, academic researchers, and industrial scientists and engineers to develop kenaf (a plant in the hibiscus family, related to okra and cotton)-based biomaterials for sustainable structured insulated panels for the built environment, especially in zero (net) energy applications. Kenaf is selected because of its ability to grow in arid conditions, where alternative plantings cannot be considered. From an engineering standpoint, it represents a domestic resource that has the same strength to weight ratio as glass fiber. Natural fibers in their as-harvested state have a porous structure that is often destroyed by the industrial processing through alkali treatment. Approaches based on placing the freshly harvested crop in river or pond water are not effective on a large scale. An alternative approach using bacteria based on selectivity for kenaf will be utilized through an academic-farmer partnership. The goal will be to develop technologically viable reinforcements that retain their natural features while reducing the environmental footprint associated with their processing.
The broader impacts from this research arise from the interdisciplinary partnership at all levels of the PFI. A successful effort could yield positive economic, environmental, and energy savings for both residential and commercial buildings, while meeting or exceeding the industrial standards. The platform of new multifunctional materials also has potential applications for commercially viable sustainable building products in many sectors (e.g., aerospace, packaging, and transportation). Efforts to integrate fiber process modifications will translate to job creation in rural segments with value-added markets improving the investment returns. The work is inherently interdisciplinary-- incorporating a variety of areas of engineering (biochemical, green, mechanical, and structural) and life cycle analysis--and through small-group interactive processes, promotes the direct involvement of graduate students early in the innovation value chain. Innovative academic-industrial research activities will be integrated with socially responsible entrepreneurship training, where doctoral students in each department will work together as an interdisciplinary Venture team, merging business and engineering innovation with sustainability concepts.
Partners at the inception of the project include the Knowledge-Enhance Partnership (KEP) unit, consisting of the University of North Texas, two small businesses: InnoVida Southeast (Miami, FL) and Ladonia Market Center (Ladonia, TX); and a federal agency: Agricultural Research Service, USDA (Lane, OK). In addition, there is another academic partner: Florida International University (Miami, FL).