MANHATTAN, KAN. -- A Kansas State University graduate student sees the unpaved road ahead, and it's filled with biomaterial.
Wilson Smith, master's student in civil engineering, Independence, Mo., is working with lignin, a plant-based sustainable material that can be added to improve the quality of unpaved roads throughout Kansas.
More than 70 percent of the 98,000 miles of roads in Kansas are unpaved, Smith said.
"One of the problems with unpaved roads is that they are made from loose granular soils with particles that are not bound to each other on the road surface," Smith said. "This limits the speed of vehicles and often generates a lot of dust, denigrating the quality of the road."
But possible solutions could come from lignin, a biomass product that is present in all plants, including wheat straw, sugar cane and corn stover. Lignin is a waste product from other industries, including the production of biofuel and paper. These industries take plant mass and use the process of hydrolysis to separate useful materials, including cellulose and hemicellulose, from lignin.
"What we're trying to do is find new uses for this lignin co-product, which ties into sustainability," Smith said.
Several properties make lignin a valuable material. It is adhesive when it becomes moist, making it good for binding soil particles together and providing cohesion. As a result, lignin works very well on unpaved roads by providing better support for vehicles and protecting the road from erosion.
Because Kansas is an agricultural state, lignin is an abundant resource and has the potential to improve unpaved roads, leading to less maintenance costs throughout the state, Smith said.
"Lignin can be extracted from many types of crop residue, and it can also be an extra source of income to farmers and the agricultural community if there is a demand for this crop residue," Smith said. "Lignin is a sustainable product.
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Kansas State University