Daniel Walczyk is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Manufacturing Innovation Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and a registered Professional Engineer in New York State. He has multiple degrees including a Ph.D. from MIT (1995), M.S. from Rensselaer (1991), and B.S. from Syracuse University (1986), all in mechanical engineering. Prior to the start of his academic career in 1996, Dr. Walczyk worked as a Postdoctoral Associate at the Technical University at Aachen in Germany (1995) through a DAAD Research Grant, and for seven years in industry as a mechanical engineer, primarily with GE. He has received several professional awards including a NSF CAREER Award (1998), Loctite Corporation Faculty Fellow (1998), Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (1999), SAE Teetor Educational Award (2000), and Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (2011). His research focuses on the development of new manufacturing processes for U.S. industry. For the last 15 years, he has focused primarily on manufacturing of sustainable engineering materials.
A Sustainable Approach to Manufacturing Advanced Composite Materials as Part of a Renewable Resource Economy
Advanced composites, consisting of fiber reinforcement such as carbon or glass encapsulated by a polymer resin matrix, are wonderful engineering materials. They are incredibly strong and lightweight, making them very useful in many industries from construction materials and automotive parts to rockets, boats, and sporting goods. They’re also expensive, bad for the environment, and difficult to get rid of.
In support of a renewable resource economy, my research team at Rensselaer investigates more sustainable composite materials derived from nature and most importantly, how best to process them. We use bast fiber plants, such as flax and the recently legalized industrial hemp, for reinforcement, and plant-derived biopolymers as the matrix to make biocomposites that are direct replacements for popular glass fiber composites.
One specific product we are examining closely is the possibility of replacing steel and glass fiber composite rebar with a hemp or flax thermoplastic composite in certain construction applications.
But the challenge with using current technologies to harvest and process the natural fibers is that they severely damage the fiber, which limits its usefulness in high-performance applications.
We have invented a new method and machine, called a peeling decorticator, to automatically and rapidly separate fibers located in the outer bark of a plant’s stalk from the inner woody part without damaging the fiber. The team is also working on automatic and continuous methods to partially or fully remove natural glues surrounding the fibers so that they bond well to biopolymer. Both technological advances result in stronger composite materials with less variation in mechanical properties.