The Virginian-Pilot
                            THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT  
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, January 21, 1996               TAG: 9601200391
DATELINE: SUFFOLK                            LENGTH: Long  :  112 lines


What do you get when you cross plastic milk jugs with peanut shells?

It may sound like the opening line to a bad joke, but a Suffolk peanut firm and high-technology wonks across Virginia hope the answer to this offbeat question is big profits and a cleaner environment.

And judging from initial responses, they may get the last laugh after all.

Mixing plastic containers, such as milk jugs and soda bottles, with empty peanut shells that for decades were simply thrown away at peanut houses, ballparks and beer halls has become a hot research-and-development project in Virginia.

Since 1992, when the idea first surfaced, peanut-shell recycling has drawn lucrative government grants, state aid, academic interest and serious industry investment.

Entrepreneurs backing such 21st century ventures envision products as varied as furniture parts, door and window moldings, shock absorbers in packaging, railroad-crossing barriers and, most recently, shipping pallets.

In October, the state-run Virginia Center for Innovative Technology helped secure a $425,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a peanut shell-based shipping pallet.

Wood shipping pallets are a $2.4 billion industry in the United States. So winning even a share of this huge market with an environmentally friendly pallet that uses no lumber, no nails and is not tossed into a landfill afterward could mean ``a helluva lot of money,'' said Robert Harrell, regional director for the Center for Innovative Technology in Hampton Roads.

As part of the grant, Birdsong Peanuts in Suffolk and Environmental Solutions in Richmond committed $2 million for a pilot manufacturing plant to demonstrate how up to 250,000 peanut pallets could be shaped each year.

Under current plans, the plant would be built in Suffolk over the next 18 months, employing up to 15 people, Harrell said. Exact locations still are being negotiated.

In winning this first-ever energy grant in Virginia, the companies told federal officials that, at best, their technology would save as much as 56 billion BTUs of energy that otherwise is needed to build traditional wood pallets.

Also, the project could spare as much as 6,250 tons of wood scrap from being dumped into area landfills, and reduce the number of trees required for pallet manufacturing by 19,230 oak trees in just its first year, according to their grant application.

``As long as we keep eating peanuts and putting out garbage in trash cans, we'll have a renewable resource, and that's a fact,'' said Phil Robinson, president of Environmental Soultions, a recycling technology company based in Richmond.

One holdup on the project is the ongoing federal budget battle in Congress, which has sidelined key money-holders at the Department of Enegry.

``We're ready to get going,'' Harrell said, ``but it's kind of hard when there's no one in Washington to talk to. Everyone we need is furloughed or too busy.''

The technology still is being tweaked, however, since preliminary test runs of the peanut pallets did not produce as strong a product as researchers had hoped, officials said.

A company in Toronto, for example, which is helping mix the first batches, has had better results melding plastics with rice hulls, said Joseph Loferski, an associate professor in the department of wood science and forest products at Virginia Tech.

Loferski has worked on other peanut recycling research at Tech's College of Forestry labs, including the testing of NuevoWood, a wood-composite lumber combining peanut shells, plastics and wood bits.

``Society has decided not to cut down the big older trees like we used to, so we're now trying to make big products out of smaller trees,'' he said. ``In that wake has sprung a whole new technology. It's the wave of the future.''

The key ingredient in peanut shells is cellulose, the white liner inside shells. The absorbent fiber also is found in the thin veins which form ridges on a shell's exterior, experts said.

Cellulose is extracted from many plants to help make paper, textiles and explosives. Because its presence is so vast, researchers have the option of experimenting with everything from peanut shells to rice hulls to almond shells in concocting new mixtures for recycled products, Loferski said.

Plastics and shells are melded together under intense heat. The two are bonded together not by chemical-based glues or resins, but by other forms of plastic, he said.

In the finished product, the shells are still visible to the eye. And in composite wood, in which wood chips are mixed with plastics and shells, a sweet, honeylike smell emerges when product sheets are cut with a saw, Loferski said.

``It's quite pleasant,'' he said.

Such advances come at a good time for the peanut industry in Virginia, which suffered through a tough year of drought, weak harvests and congressional fighting over peanut subsidies in 1995.

Americans may be eating fewer peanuts, given their rising health concerns with fatty foods. But at least a new market for peanuts - albeit their shells, not their meat - is evolving.

Joked Dan Lynch, a Chesapeake researcher who is helping develop a railroad-crossing barrier made partially from peanut shells: ``Yeah, maybe one day we'll be saying the peanut hulls are the product and the meat is just a byproduct.''

Lynch is project manager for the ``friendly mobile barrier,'' a huge air-baglike device to protect cars and trucks from crashing into oncoming trains. His company, Consolidated Launcher Technology Inc. of Chesapeake, is working to perfect the barriers with Environmental Solutions and B.F. Goodrich Aerospace.

Conceived in 1992, the barriers would be placed underground near railroad crossings. They would pop up and form a puffy, 6-foot-high wall as a train approaches, Lynch explained.

This summer, the barriers passed their first set of safety tests, he said, standing up to a pickup-sized truck crashing into them at 45 miles per hour.

Lynch and others involved in the project are expected to meet with the federal Railroad Administration later this month to further discuss their barrier.

``It's an exciting concept,'' he said, ``and it's proven extremely effective so far.'' by CNB