Sustainability Research Finds a Home at NDSU

CSMS NDSU PRIVATE DROPBOX FILE | PHOTO COURTESY 11/21/14 - North Dakota State University Graduate students Angel Ugrinov (left), Ramya Raghunathan (center) and Retheesh Krishnan (right) in an NDSU chemistry laboratory.
11/21/14 – North Dakota State University Graduate students Angel Ugrinov (left), Ramya Raghunathan (center) and Retheesh Krishnan (right) in an NDSU chemistry laboratory.What happens when oil goes away?

What happens when oil goes away?

Dr. Mukund Sibi asked me this question last week, something many people have pondered. Along with Dr. Dean Webster, he is working on answering this very question.

Sustainable material science (SMS) has a research department here at North Dakota State. Not only is this a new industry, but it is headed by two men who are passionate about the science as well as our planet.

Mukund Sibi grew up in Bangalore, India, “The IT capital of India,” he said. He did his graduate work in New York at the University of Waterloo and Dartmouth. He moved to Fargo in 1988.

Dean Webster grew up on the East Coast and attended Virginia Tech for his bachelors and Ph.D. After college he went on to work with Sherwin Williams. Followed by working with Eastman Chemical Company. He has been a Fargoan since 2001.

Sustainable material science

SMS in simplest terms is replacing the petrochemical, or fossil fuel based, plastics, with bio-based, or plant based, alternatives.

There are many reasons to do this, as noted by both men; for instance global pollution, sustainability, but also finding new materials.

“It’s not to just replace petroleum based products.” Sibi said.

The overall goal in SMS is to not only save our fragile planet from pollution, but to also provide materials for the future.

SMS is not only limited to one discipline either.

“You need everybody,” Sibi told me. SMS requires a worldwide effort, from consumer to producers.

“We have the expertise,” Webster added. “Combining forces we can do things that we can’t alone.”

The two added the world not only needs chemists and engineers, we need people in agriculture, people in marketing. Both men made it clear this is a worldwide effort.


“We all want to hit home runs … But we can’t all hit home runs. But hey we can hit singles,” Sibi said about sustainable materials today.

Webster said the Dasani water bottle is made with 30 percent sustainable materials. Though this is a step, both of the doctors see a future with 100 percent bio-based materials.

As noted by Sibi, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is produced out of some composite sustainable materials.

Today both men noted it takes time for a big shift to happen. As of today there are materials available, and there are new ones on the horizon.


“We’re still based on old technology.” Webster said, adding these materials are “as stiff and sometimes better” than their petrochemical counterparts.

Webster added on how in the future, cars are going to have to get lighter and more sustainable. Not only are there materials ready to replace the plastics in cars, but also in some cases the metals.

Of course more testing is required, but Sibi and Webster see a future with sustainable materials. Webster said someday we will be walking around on shoe soles that are made out of 100 percent sustainable materials, but we won’t make a big deal out of it.

We won’t make a big deal about it because eventually, sustainable materials will just simply be better than their petrochemical counterparts.

“People want new materials,” Webster said, adding, “There really are no new polymer building blocks coming out, there hasn’t been for 20 years.”

He continued to say not only are there no new materials being made from petrochemicals, but SMS has produced new materials with new properties.

“We engineer the molecules, so we can generate the materials with the right performance properties,” Webster said, adding these new properties include lighter weight materials as well as stronger materials.

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