Engineers at Washington State University take upcycling to a whole new level

At the Composite Material and Engineering Center, they turn waste—from wood to carpet fiber to wind turbine blades—into composite materials strong enough for new buildings and bridges.

“My passion is the recycling aspect,” says Karl Englund, an associate research professor and Extension specialist with CMEC. “I enjoy figuring out how to deal with trash and turn it into something good.”

A composite material combines two or more materials for an added benefit, such as flexibility, strength, waterproofing, or

“A cake is a composite material,” Englund explains. “You mix things together, like eggs, sugar, and flour, to create something new.”

However, more goes into a composite building material than into a birthday cake, Englund says. The engineer has to consider the science of making the composite, the economics, potential end uses, and the public benefit of the new composite.

Often Englund and other CMEC researchers are approached by industry or government to make something better. Vik Yadama, also an associate professor and Extension specialist with CMEC, is studying how the United States Forest Service could make new building material from the small trees it removes from forests.

Researchers have to be methodical and understand every step that goes into adding benefits. “You have to look at the big picture. You can’t just jump in the middle of the process,” says Yadama.

After identifying the material, the researcher figures out how to process it, says Englund. “How are you going to break down the material and how will you form it into a final composite? And how does this affect the properties?”

In the case of wood, grinding it up gives the engineer more freedom to reshape it, but it could potentially lose its strength. For Yadama’s timber, the best option is to break the wood down into flakes called “strands” and fuse the strands together. This process converts up to 90 percent of the timber into lumber and keeps its structural strength.

A composite also needs to be easy to use, affordable, and marketable. “A lot of people have had really great ideas, but the economics just weren’t there,” Englund says.

Although Englund admits this mentality can be stifling, it’s realistic. When creating new composites, Englund and Yadama have to consider where this composite will be manufactured, how much energy goes into manufacturing it, transportation and work costs, and of course what the material will look like.

“If the material doesn’t look right, it won’t sell,” Englund explains. “Nobody wants to buy off-white toilet paper, for example.”

Once the engineers create the composite, it’s time to figure out if the material works. That’s where CMEC director Don Bender comes in. Bender analyzes the architectural and end-use properties of the composite to ensure that when it goes to market, it’s safe for public use.

“Building codes require products to undergo extensive testing at accredited laboratories such as ours,” Bender says. “If a product hasn’t gone through this rigorous process, then the local building official or inspector can reject its use in buildings for their jurisdictions.”

Once testing has confirmed that the composite product is safe, the client has the green light to take the product to market.

“We generally wouldn’t bring the product to market,” Englund says. “We would definitely patent the material or the process, but we would need a commercial entity or a faculty member would have to start their own company to market the material.”