ISU bio-polymer facility helping to make better road materials

Mariah Griffith

Iowa State’s new bio-polymer facility, which was dedicated Wednesday, will help create polymers that will help make asphalt stronger. 

The dedication event celebrated the completed of the $5.3 million facility. 

The facility is a scaled-down chemical production plant where a team of ISU researchers will be producing an asphalt additive from a soybean-oil polymer. The polymer was designed by the ISU research team under Eric Cochran, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Christopher Williams, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.

The research and small-scale production, slated to start Sept. 1, is hoped to lead to an increased use of the new polymer instead of a petroleum-derived product called styrene butadiene styrene, or SBS. 

“What currently do is take SBS pellets and dissolve those right into a batch of asphalt that they’re processing,” Cochran said. “That makes the road hold up better at higher temperatures so that heavy vehicles like semis don’t push right into the pavement.”

The new bio-polymer does the same thing — only better. In aging tests, the bio-polymer asphalt could withstand up to a 50-degree-wider range of temperatures than the SBS asphalt before failing. And that’s not the only reason to use it.

“Pound for pound, the soybean-oil plastic is about 10 percent less costly to produce, but once you figure in the cost of building a processing plant, it’s kind of a wash,” Cochran said. “Where the real value is that we need about two-thirds as much of our material to get the same benefit in asphalt as with SBS.”

In application, that boils down to a $25-$50 savings per ton for road construction contractors, all while using a more sustainable and better-performing product.

Although soybean oil has many uses, most notably in biodiesel, Cochran isn’t worried about producers wanting to jump into the project.

“The thing about biodiesel is that it’s a high-volume, low-value application,” Cochran said. “What having these value-added applications does is it allows the producers to make an economic decision.”

Iowa State will not be receiving any profits from the new facility, but it does provide exciting opportunities. Corporate sponsor Seneca Petroleum Co. Inc., however could stand to make a large amount if they choose to build larger-scale facilities.

“Even if we had a full staff of operators to run [the ISU pilot plant] three shifts a day, seven days a week, we could max that plant out at about 5 tons a week,” Cochran said. “This is the smallest scale that mimics what you actually see at full scale.”

The research team continues to test and improve the product and has a few other projects in the works including a glycerin-based adhesive and an alternative to nylon fabric.

“Basically speaking, at the end of the day [the facility] is just a bunch of tanks and stirrers,” Cochran said. “The beauty of that is that other chemical processes can work in that same facility.”