A new generation of polymers made from renewable resources has made its debut on supermarket shelves in the form of a dispersant inside packages of powdered detergent. But this biodegradable ingredient, the brainchild of materials scientist Yvon Durant '96G, could have a much larger impact if it is widely adopted for use in an array of consumer products, including diapers.
It was six years ago that Durant first saw the potential in itaconic acid, which is fermented from corn and other sugars. Although it has limited use by itself, he discovered a way to polymerize itaconic acid, creating polyitaconic acid, the basis for new "green" polymers. Durant's polymers can replace petroleum-based acrylic acid polymers used as water softeners and dispersants in laundry and automatic dishwashing detergents, the base of house paints and the superabsorbent substance in disposable diapers.
Before Durant could take his discovery to the marketplace, however, he had to reduce the cost of the manufacturing process. That took some time to figure out. "It wasn't like when the apple fell on Newton's head," he says. He and graduate student Ming Cao '08G developed the technology for starting a spinoff company to produce the polymers, winning Cao a prize in UNH's Holloway Innovation-to-Market Competition.
Durant and John R. Shaw, president of Kensington Research, formed Itaconix LLC in 2008. Based in Dover, N.H., the company now has 11 employees, including three UNH students and three UNH alumni. In 2010, Itaconix cracked the detergent market when eco-friendly laundry brands began using the company's DSP 2K dispersant to improve detergent performance. Eco Touch, a Dover company that makes environmentally friendly car-cleaning products, has also incorporated the dispersant into its cleaners to enhance performance.
After two years, the company is generating revenue. "We started sending royalty payments to UNH less than 16 months after licensing," says Shaw.
Itaconix has received more than $2 million in research grants, including funding to develop a process--with the help of researchers at the University of Maine and UMass Lowell--to use a wood chip extract instead of corn glucose. One advantage of wood chips, in addition to a ready supply in New England, is that after processing, the chips can be used to generate electricity from biomass or heat from wood pellets--a case of recycling at its best.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents