CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – In Upstate laboratories and workrooms, inventors are creating new products that could significantly impact the environment.  

It’s Clemson researchers who are leading the charge in finding eco-friendly solutions to real-world problems.

Bio-based foam

If inventing was ever part of your childhood dream, you’ll appreciate the eureka moment Assistant Professor of Sustainable Packaging James Sternberg experienced in his Clemson laboratory.

“There was an incredible reaction and something we never expected to happen, actually,” Sternberg explained.

The task: create a non-toxic, recyclable and bio-based foam for things like packaging or seat cushions.  

Sternberg showed 7NEWS the brown, spongy creation.  

“The brown color comes from the lignin, a byproduct of the paper-making process, and the flexibility and the cushion characteristics actually comes from the castor oil,” Sternberg said.

The 100% bio-based product is virtually the same consistency as polyurethane foam, one of the earth’s most toxic and widely used plastics.

“It has an environmentally friendliness and a non-toxic nature that compared to what’s currently done, is just heads and tails better,” according to Sternberg.

Nanocrystals with a big job

Across campus, the work of Associate Professor of Chemistry Daniel Whitehead is focused on a plant-based solution for a different problem.  

Whitehead’s team is creating nanocrystals capable of eliminating odors and filtering polluted air and water, and it all comes from a crop that is abundant in South Carolina.

“So, we take cotton, and we use that as our platform to extract the crystalline portions of cellulose,” Whitehead said. “Additionally, then after they (nanocrystals) are used they are completely biodegradable because they are made from cellulose.”

As exciting as the technology is, both lab researchers acknowledge the vast majority of lab inventions never make it to market.  

To add to the challenge, these products not only have to be affordable but able to be produced on a mass scale.

Cross-laminated timber

What is already gaining momentum in real-world application is another plant-based product with roots in the Upstate, literally, the Southern pine.

Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is a new type of construction material that Michael Stoner, a Civil Engineer with Clemson has researched for the past decade.  

“You could say Clemson is one of the first to try to bring CLT to the United States,” Stoner explained.

He said the ultra-strong product is becoming an attractive alternative in the construction of eco-friendly buildings like one of the buildings on campus.

“Steel or concrete requires carbon to produce those materials, so by choosing something like mass timber, you’re not only storing the carbon but you’re offsetting the potential carbon from another building material,” Stoner said.

Where the research stands now

Back in the lab, Whitehead said his nanocrystals are starting to be used on a small scale in a California pet food plant. 

“It’s very exciting. We’ve been working on this project for about 12 years now, and so it’s nice to see it having matured and see all the problems we can solve with the material,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead has also published several papers on his research over the last decade.

Meanwhile, Sternberg, who is just a few years into his research, said he’s fielded calls from 20 companies in sectors including packaging, auto, furniture, toys and even athletic tracks.

“It’s a huge industry, so the solution could be huge as well,” said Sternberg.

Stoner, who has also published papers on cross-laminated timber, said a company called Timberlab, recently opened a facility near Greenville, S.C., to fabricate mass timber components for construction on the East Coast.  

The university said the local research is certainly putting Clemson on the map as more and more companies across the nation take an interest in products that may never have existed had it not been for the hard work of its researchers.