Nebraska part of multi-state ag effort to unwrap bioplastic benefits

Sam Wortman
Sam Wortman | Agronomy and Horticulture
Tomato and pepper plants that include bioplastic film grow on East Campus test plots. The film was developed by 15 researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Kansas State University and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
March 7, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers are part of a new $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop bioplastics for use in agriculture over the next four years.

The project includes a consortium of 15 researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Kansas State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The Nebraska team is led by Karina Schoengold, associate professor of agricultural economics and faculty fellow of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. Chittaranjan Ray, director of the Nebraska Water Center, played a pivotal role in assembling the team.

“This idea spawned from conversations with neighboring researchers in Kansas and South Dakota,” Ray said.

In turn, the researchers asked each other what they could do that was truly novel. Their answer was “Bioplastics with Regenerative Agricultural Properties,” or BioWRAP. The project aims to reduce the use of plastics, herbicides, fertilizers and associated environmental impacts in agricultural production by creating an all-in-one bioplastic system that can better manage weeds, add nutrients to soils, improve soil and plant health, and save water.

An example of sprayable mulch derived from bioplastic materials.
Sam Wortman | Agronomy and Horticulture
An example of sprayable mulch derived from bioplastic materials.

BioWRAP draws from an array of scientific disciplines that fall into three major buckets – engineering biopolymers, strengthening agroecosystems, and assessing broader impacts. The general concept of bioplastics is to develop biodegradable plastics through renewable, biological substances rather than from finite petroleum-derived sources.

The team will investigate three types of biopolymers: Polyhydroxyalkanoate-based, protein-based and hybrid polymers. Ultimately, they will apply these bioplastics to field sites to assess their degradation and ability to enhance nitrogen fixing bacteria, soil moisture, weed suppression, irrigation efficiency, manage temperature, and improve the quality of agricultural products.

Second, the team will investigate how bioplastics can improve agroecosystem health. Weed control is a cornerstone of this bucket. Recent increases in herbicide-resistant weeds have elevated concerns over environmental contamination, human health risks and productivity losses. Additional research is planned around soil and water quality, life cycle assessment and resource use and impact inventory. Vaishali Sharda, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Kansas State University, will lead this area and is also BioWRAP’s principal investigator.

“New, locally sourced types of bioplastics that fully break down into safe by-products can be made,” Sharda said. “These new materials could provide farmers with a green way to control weeds, fertilize crops, protect soil and water resources, and work with nature to better manage their fields.”

The final bucket revolves around broader impacts. Under Schoengold’s lead, the team will scrutinize product adoption, rural sustainability, ecosystem services, markets and sustainable data provision. The team hypothesizes that – if implemented carefully and strategically – BioWRAP will strengthen rural areas socioeconomically through new biorefineries, careers, earnings and market access.

The last thread is student training and workforce development. Beyond the 15 participating faculty, the consortium will encompass three post-doctoral researchers, nine undergraduates, 12 graduate students, 40 high school students and 40 middle school students. Activities include webinars, workshops, curriculum development, summer research camps, and outreach to tribal, women, and underrepresented communities.

In addition to Schoengold and Ray, other Nebraska teammates include Erin Haacker, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences; Loren Isom, assistant director, Industrial Agricultural Products Center; Christopher Proctor, associate extension educator with agronomy and horticulture; Daran Rudnick, associate professor of biological systems engineering; and Mark Wilkins, director, Industrial Agricultural Products Center.

The project is funded through NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Research Infrastructure Improvement Program Track 2. Successful projects involve a consortium of three or more EPSCoR jurisdictions (states) and may receive up to $1.5 million per year for up to four years.

BioWRAP will launch in early 2022 and run through 2025. Over that period, each university will receive $2 million in project funding and host an annual meeting of the consortium’s stakeholders, advisory board, research faculty, post-docs, and graduate, undergraduate, and secondary education students.