Alumna Balkis Bakar, an Oregon State University graduate who received her PhD in wood science in 2019, is adapting wood-based composite manufacturing technology to create a new kind of composite material made from grape cane fibers.
Bakar came to OSU as a sponsored student from the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia. She had a general idea of what she wanted to research, but it wasn’t until a service project with a local Oregon vineyard that she found a suitable material to work with. The company wanted to do something with their agricultural waste, which triggered an interest for Bakar.
“We often see the commercial product produced from the crop or plantation such as wine or cotton fibers. But what happens to the necessary byproduct produced from activities like pruning or harvesting?” asks Bakar.
Bakar says some byproduct is used for fuel, as mulch, left in the field or burned. But there is a growing interest and effort in many countries to use underutilized fibers or non-wood fibers.
“Balkis saw an opportunity to study the resource and then create a product,” says Professor Fred Kamke, the JELD-WEN Chair of Wood-based Composites Science and leader of the wood-based composites center at OSU. “Her greatest contribution is a thorough analysis of the raw material, including anatomical characteristics, cell wall structure, and chemistry.”
Based on her analysis, Bakar devised a process to extract the usable fibers and manufacture a composite using 40% grape cane fiber and 60% polyester.
“No one had done that with grape cane before,” says Kamke. “Grape cane is typically burned as waste.”
“Adapting underutilized fibers like agricultural waste as an alternative material for wood in certain applications can have many benefits,” says Bakar. “It can reduce the demand burden for wood, and growers can benefit if the plantation byproduct has some economic value.”
Bakar, who obtained her bachelor’s degree in bio-composite technology at Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam and master’s degree in the same field at Universiti Putra Malaysia, explains that bio-based composites are not limited to wood fiber and include all plant materials. Previously she studied agricultural waste and byproducts from palm oil plantations.
Bakar sees potential for future grape fiber research, saying that some vineyard owners are already trying to utilize this material. Examples include weaving the cane into containers, creating decorations or converting the fiber into boards.
The Wood and Fiber Science Journal published Bakar’s research in 2020 and the International Society of Wood Science and Technology (SWST) awarded Bakar and Kamke the 2021 George Marra first place award for excellence in writing.
Bakar currently works at Universiti Putra Malaysia as a lecturer in the Department of Natural Resource Industry at Faculty of Forestry and Environment.
Bakar chose OSU because of its reputation in the forestry field and the reputation of Dr. Kamke.
Dr. Kamke has led the Wood-Based Composites Center (WBC) for over 17 years. The WBC is an NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center with two main university sites, Oregon State University and Virginia Tech. Partner institutions North Carolina State University, Michigan State University, Auburn University and the University of Nevada Reno also conduct WBC research.
As head of the center, Kamke leads research involving the design, manufacture and performance of wood-based composites. His research group also explores the interaction of adhesives with wood and modified wood in composite applications.
Kamke says many people think of particle board when they hear the phrase wood-based composite, but it is so much more than that. Wood-based composites can be manufactured in various shapes and sizes and include composite lumber, structural panels, and 3D molded parts.
“Even cross laminated timber (CLT) is considered a composite and architects are now designing skyscrapers using CLT,” says Kamke. “CLT is made from lumber, but a companion product called mass plywood panels (MPP) is made from veneer by the Freres Lumber Company. I predict that we will see other types of wood composites used in the mass timber products market.”
There are many advantages to wood-based composites. They are highly uniform in their properties, whereas solid wood varies from piece to piece. Pound for pound, a structural wood composite will have greater strength and stiffness than a solid-sawn beam or column. Perhaps the best advantage of composites is the ability to use nearly 100% of the log (excluding bark) while solid-sawn lumber has a yield of about 50%. In addition, producers cannot create another solid piece of lumber with recycled wood and sawmill residues, but producers can utilize the materials to create a composite.
Both Bakar and Kamke see massive opportunities in the broader field of bio-based composites, adhesives and modified wood composites.
“Wood-based composites and modified wood products can compete against synthetic composites like glass fiber composites, and also with streel and concrete,” says Kamke.
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Focus on Forestry, the alumni magazine of the Oregon State University College of Forestry.