Research: Higher barrier paper-based packaging

Tuesday, 05 December, 2023

Research: Higher barrier paper-based packaging

Afreen Sultana, Clemson University PhD student, is working to engineer higher barrier, biodegradable, paper-based packaging enhanced by cellulose nanocrystals taken from the kudzu plant.

Sultana has been awarded a $25,000 fellowship from Hitachi High-Tech America Inc. to support her research and the completion of her doctoral degree in food technology.

According to the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), globally, nearly 400 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year, with only 9% recycled.

Paper-based packaging holds promise as an environmentally friendly, biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. The problem, however, is that paper is permeable to liquids, water vapours and gases, and current packaging often relies on synthetic polymer coatings to protect its contents. It can be challenging and costly to recycle such materials.

Sultana is working to strengthen starch-based coatings by using cellulose nanocrystals taken from the invasive kudzu plant to improve paper-based packaging’s resistance to liquids and gases. Sultana extracts from pearl millet for the starch, a summer hay crop that is inexpensive to grow. Using equipment at Clemson’s Electron Microscopy Facility, she will analyse materials at the molecular level to fine-tune these biofilms.

In the past three years, Sultana has published nine research publications and has worked closely with packaging industry partners on sustainable packaging research. With this project, she is under the supervision of Professor Scott Whiteside in the Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences.

Interim Department Chair Feng Chen said, “Developing innovative sustainable packaging materials is currently a hot topic in academia and will have a significant impact on the packaging industry. Dr Whiteside and Afreen’s current study on developing starch-based, biodegradable packaging material is one of the possible solutions to reduce the use of non-environmentally friendly plastics, which will not only accommodate contemporary consumers’ needs, but also keep our planet cleaner and safer.”

The fellowship was established by Hitachi High-Tech America in 2014 to support a graduate student using the Clemson University Electron Microscopy Facility to conduct research as part of their doctoral studies. Sultana is the 10th recipient of the fellowship and the first from the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.

Image caption from left: Carl Hodines, Maurilio Martinez and Chris Watters of Hitachi High-Tech America Inc., Clemson PhD student Afreen Sultana, Kohei Soda and Dean Plunkett of Hitachi, Clemson professor Scott Whiteside and Tanju Karanfil, Clemson senior vice president for research, scholarship and creative endeavours.

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