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Jan. 14, 2014

Ramani Narayan: Working toward a sustainable future

Jan. 15, 2014

Ramani Narayan is a University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science who studies polymeric materials from renewable resources; biodegradable polymer systems; engineering and design of natural-synthetic polymer graft and block copolymers; polymer blends; and studies in reactive extrusion processing, bio based and recyclable composites.

About five years ago, my lab received funding for the soybean utilization project from the Michigan 21st Century Jobs Fund. The project is creating new value-added uses of soybeans, which supports Michigan farmers and the bioeconomy. Soybeans are the second largest crop in Michigan. About two million acres are grown each year, and the commodity adds approximately $1 billion to the state’s economy.

This is a great example of a bioeconomy program that is derived from technology developed at MSU. We are transitioning it to setting up a manufacturing operation and a biorefinery at Zeeland Farm Services. If you create more value-added products, it will create value for the farmer as well as for the economy in the state.

Michigan-based Ford Motor Company currently uses biobased foam in its car headrests, something that would please Henry Ford himself.

With Ford being the end user of these products, it’s a wonderful story of going from the farm to the finished product. If you look at the history of Ford, this was the vision of Henry Ford himself who wanted to have his automobiles run on biofuels—and the components of his car be based on the soybean.

The impetus of this work started with the environment. One of the major driving reasons was reducing the carbon footprint. Switching the carbon in the products from petrol fossil to bio gives you a zero-material carbon footprint because this carbon, which is coming from a bio, balances itself. It’s sustainable.

Petrol fossil carbon has been formed over millions of years. When it is used, it is put back into the environment as carbon dioxide in 10 to 20 years, so there is no balance and it’s not sustainable.

The second driver was the end of life. Some of these products are capable of being completely biodegraded in an environment like composting or in soil and, therefore, this provides a environmentally responsible end of life. ‘

The third one, of course, is reducing the dependence on petroleum and oil.

I consider myself a faculty entrepreneur. Michigan State University—and especially President Simon—is a very ardent supporter of faculty and faculty entrepreneurship. To me, that’s just great. Typically faculty don’t get such support elsewhere.

Faculty members teach, they graduate students, they do some research, they publish papers. For me, the challenge was to not just publish papers and graduate students but to translate the research into commercially viable technologies and to have students participate in it and actually go work with that company or work in that field.

The students are a big component of it. If you look at, I could do the same without being at the university. But for me, the interaction with the students is a critical component that keeps me here. The students are still the key because without them, it’s not as much fun.

I’m having so much fun, I’m not sure what I’ll do when I retire. But eventually you have to move on. For me, success would be to see this bioeconomy actually taking root—to see these companies that have been created and these products that have evolved from the technologies developed by me here grow and have the students coming out of my group actually assume positions in management and research to further grow this industry.

Photo by Kurt Stepnitz