Tawfick’s fiber research contributes to sustainable paper products
Research Park is home to an agricultural fiber paper lab that produces and sells paper made from agricultural waste. Called Fresh Press, the lab operates through the University of Illinois and has a mix of students and staff from fine arts and engineering backgrounds.
The lab’s initial goal was to eliminate campus farm waste by using it to make paper. In order to use the waste fibers to create three-dimensional packaging, the lab needed a strong understanding of the fibers’ behavioral properties. In 2014, two years after it opened, MechSE Assistant Professor Sameh Tawfick read about Fresh Press and reached out about collaborating.
“My core research program deals with processing, structure, and properties of synthetic fibers, known as carbon nanotubes,” said Tawfick, who was excited about the prospect of using agricultural waste to construct sustainable materials. “These are comparable in size to nano-cellulose, which is the smallest constituent of plant fibers.”
Eric Benson, chair of the university‘s graphic design program in the School of Art + Design, co-founded Fresh Press in 2012 with a grant from the Student Sustainability Committee.
“Agricultural residue is a more sustainable source for paper products than tree fiber,” Benson said. “The most sustainable way to work is with the materials that are closest to you, and it also benefits the manufacturing and farming communities.”
Fresh Press has grown steadily since its advent, and now produces and sells paper stock and greeting cards from various fibers such as rye, soy, hemp, corn, and ash. The lab currently caters to a niche market, but hopes to expand commercially in the future, as well as create paper packaging products.
Tawfick and Benson received a Campus Research Board grant to advise undergraduate research assistants interested in working on Fresh Press projects. Recent engineering mechanics alumna Lauren Kovanko was one such student. She is now finishing a study that relates the processing and structure of plant fiber materials to their mechanical behavior.
“From a mechanical behavior perspective, we can identify the possible uses and limitations of the fiber materials as well as point out ways that the fiber processing can be tailored to create a material that is appropriate for a specific application,” Kovanko said.
For her research, Kovanko prepares different types of fiber samples provided by Fresh Press, such as corn and rye, and images them with optical and scanning microscopy at various length scales. The imaging provides information about the structure of the fibers. For mechanical behavior properties, Kovanko performs compression testing.
“I learned that my mechanical engineering skills are useful and needed by other groups,” Kovanko said of her experience with Fresh Press. “It has been a great experience to collaborate with others outside of the engineering field.”
Fresh Press hopes to use Kovanko’s research to determine which agricultural fibers have the greatest strength characteristics for use in three-dimensional forms like packaging.
MechSE students interested in getting involved with research and projects at Fresh Press are encouraged to contact Benson or Tawfick.
“We are always looking for bright, self-motivated students,” Tawfick said. “They learn material processing, mechanical behavior and testing, and surface and wetting properties, and get to collaborate with an inter-disciplinary team of faculty and graduate students. It gives them unique perspective.”
Photo at top: Various fiber samples are studied for their behavioral properties.
Photos courtesy of Lauren Kovanko.