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Photo: Chemists Greg Gray (left) and William Orts use x-ray diffraction to characterize agricultural fibers for use in biobased products. Link to photo information
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Read the magazine story to find out more.

Straw-Fiber Packaging Within Grasp Soon

By Marcia Wood
April 29, 2002

Today’s leftover rice and wheat straw might tomorrow be used in making environmentally friendly packaging materials or other biobased products. The molded polystyrene forms that hold computers or electronic components snugly in their shipping cartons, for example, could be replaced with biodegradable inserts made--in part--from straw fiber. That’s according to Agricultural Research Service chemist William J. Orts. He is leader of the Bioproduct Chemistry and Engineering Unit at the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.

Orts directs studies that are revealing how cellulose-rich fibers from straw hold up during pulping. The pulping process results in a slurry of straw, water and additives, such as clays and starches, that are dried and molded into rigid shapes.

Straw fibers must perform predictably so that the finished pulp product is uniform, according to Orts. Otherwise, manufacturers might opt to stay with familiar raw materials instead of choosing straw.

Orts is collaborating in the studies with Regale Corporation, a California-based designer and manufacturer of customized packaging made from recycled materials.

In new tests at the Western Regional Research Center, Orts and co-researchers are putting rice and wheat straw through a modified hot-water and a conventional chemical-based pulping process. The researchers hope to discover variations that could lower costs. That could boost the appeal of rice or wheat straw as an economical manufacturing option.

Packaging materials and other biobased products from straw could give growers a new, profitable market for straw that today is plowed under or perhaps sold for animal feed or bedding.

The amount of straw produced each year is enormous. In California alone, the annual rice crop generates more than 300,000 tons of straw. And the state’s wheat crop yields an estimated 400,000 tons of straw.

An article in the April 2002 issue of the agency’s Agricultural Research magazine has more information.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.