For decades, no less a medical authority than Mary Poppins has been advising children and adults alike that a spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down. Today, thanks to a faulty temperature reading on a laboratory baking oven, researchers at Oregon State University are eyeing the commercialization of a new breed of non-toxic, environmentally-benign and cost-effective sand binder based on the therapeutic powers of that same material.
We were surprised that simple sugar could bind sand together so strongly, Kaichang Li, a professor of wood science and engineering at Corvallis, Ore.-based Oregon State University (OSU), told Inner Circle. The binder systems weve developed should be much less expensive than existing sand binders and do not pose toxicity concerns, he added, noting that materials such as furan and phenol formaldehyde resins can emit toxic fumes during the mold-making and metal-casting process.
Working with faculty research assistant Jian Huang, Li identified combinations of sugar, soy flour and hydrolyzed starch--or just sugar by itself--that he says should work effectively as a binder in sand molds for making various types of metal castings.
Our sand binders are very easy to use, Li told Inner Circle. You can buy the ingredients, mix them with sand and are ready to make sand molds if we provide you with the binder formulations. Sugar and other carbohydrates are abundant, inexpensive, food-grade materials, he pointed out, noting that any sugarcane sugars purchased at the local grocery are candidates for use. And since such agricultural products largely decompose into just carbon dioxide and water, there should be no environmental drawbacks, he added.
Li is quick to note that serendipity--in the form of an electro-mechanical snafu--played a starring role in the birth of the new, eco-friendly generation of binders. We have an old oven, he explained. The dial reading on the oven is lower than the actual temperature inside the oven. The extra temperature was essential for imparting the superior strength and moisture resistance of the sand molds made with the binders.
To date, OSUs researchers, which have applied for a patent on the process, have made various small molds with their binders and the molds have been used to produce metal castings in small foundry plants. Experts in the foundry plants were very happy with the performance of the binders, Li said. But the sand binders have yet to be used in an actual commercial production environment.
Results from initial tests conducted at foundry plants indicate that sand molds made with OSUs binders are comparable to or even better than those made with currently-used sand binders, Li said. So, our sand binder technology is ready for a full scale of commercial application. We at Oregon State University will work with an investor and a foundry plant to resolve any unforeseen issues, he said.
We are specialists in materials science and polymer chemistry and experts in adhesives. But we have limited knowledge of the foundry industry, Li acknowledged. So an ideal investor should have in-depth knowledge of the foundry industry, know who would need these environmentally friendly sand binders and be good at selling the binders to the metal casters.
The foundry industry is an old industry and may not be willing to accept change, Li said when asked what he considered the steepest challenge the researchers faced in ushering the OSU binders to full commercialization. As I see it, the biggest challenge of commercializing our sand binders is how to break the market barrier.
Li, a winner of the Environmental Protection Agencys Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, is no stranger to pioneering innovations geared to reduce waste or toxins in manufacturing processes. A natural resin made from soy flour and perfected in the OSU laboratory is already being used commercially to replace formaldehyde-baed adhesives in the manufacture of some wood products.