UNC Charlotte professor Na Lu is making something new out of something very old. By combining elements of hemp, an ancient grass, with recycled plastic bottles, she has successfully pioneered a new building material.
According to Lu, who is an assistant professor of engineering technology, the material may outperform both composite and wood lumber used for residential and some commercial building. And the process will provide environmental benefits — of the 20 billion plastic bottles used annually in the United States, only 18 percent of those get recycled.
Born in China, Lu earned her doctorate degree from Clemson University. As a student, she worked with a professor in Arizona to construct a school from straw bales coated with cement.
Lu’s passion for sustainability led her to a career as an engineer, researcher and teacher at UNC Charlotte. Her research has resulted in the creation of an experimental material that is moisture-and insect-resistant, important characteristics for a building material.
Hemp fiber and its components are being used in a wide-range of goods and industries, from clothing to car interiors. In Lu’s formula, the hemp fibers are substituted for the chipped wood and virgin plastic typically used in traditional composite lumber.
The fibers are non-toxic and extremely strong. In fact, her composite material performs as a level akin to medium-strength concrete. And the material is lighter than composite lumber.
The material isn’t ready for mass production yet, but Lu has received interest from a lumber company and an architectural firm. As with most new materials, the cost of production will be higher up front, Lu said, but the life cycle costs would be cheaper. As the demand for and production of the material escalates, Lu believes the costs passed on to consumers would decrease.
In addition to this high-potential project, Lu is exploring what happens when you combine recycled plastic with bamboo fibers, as well as novel ways to harvest waste heat energy and convert it into electrical energy.