EDMONTON — A University of Alberta scientist has figured out a way to transform cattle parts into plastic to offer a potentially profitable alternative to the disposal of all those bits that the mad cow crisis turned into waste.
"We're one of the few projects that was kind of a wild card — go out and see if we could add value," said biochemical engineer David Bressler.
Canada's cattle industry was devastated in 2003 when mad cow disease was discovered on an Alberta farm. In addition to trade disruptions that continue to plague ranchers, cattle brains and spinal cords, known as specified risk materials, could no longer be used for fear of possible infection and were rendered worthless.
What producers or meat processors once sold for up to $100 a ton now costs them $30 a ton in disposal costs.
Bressler, with funding from government and industry, was asked to see if he could find a way to make that material useful again.
He and his team found they could use highly pressurized water to break down proteins in the materials into smaller bits that could be bound together with a second chemical — much like the rungs joining two sides of a ladder.
The process creates a brownish, opaque, odorless powder that can be cast into any shape. Its strength and flexibility can be adjusted by altering the number of chemical steps joining the two sides.
"What we're doing in our lab is testing different cross-linking and different amounts of cross-linking to see if we can build up something that makes a very rigid or very soft plastic," said Bressler.
"We've been talking with a couple of the big auto parts manufacturers in Canada that sell globally. We're sending them materials and they're testing it out and giving us feedback on how to modify it."
It could also be blended with other materials such as Fibreglas for different uses, suggested Bressler.
His group has applied for patents on the product, although it's probably two or three years away from commercial feasibility.
About 5,000 tons of cow parts a week are dumped into landfills, estimated Bressler. That garbage could yield 3,500 tons of raw material for the new plastic.
But don't ask him what to call it.
"We don't have a name," he laughed. "We don't really have a catchphrase nickname for it."