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Students having a blast with fiery corn innovation project
Associate Editor

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — When he was 12, Alexander Parobek went to a fireworks display. As the pyrotechnics spat discarded plastics, ash and strawboard back to earth, a four-inch piece of fiery strawboard landed not far from where he was sitting downwind of the display.
When they left a little later, the boy sneaked the cooled piece of strawboard home without his parents’ permission, so he could study it, explaining he was fascinated by how it was made. This is the part of fireworks that encases the explosives, beneath the colorful paper.

Years later, Parobek and teammates Rachel Clayton, Polina Navotnaya and Jake Hoeing have developed a prototype replacement for this strawboard, which they call Sky Maize. True to its name, the casing is made of corn – or at least corncob, ground coarse and held together by a soy-based adhesive.

For their efforts, the Purdue University students won last week’s fifth annual Corn Product Innovation Competition. Months of work culminated in a $20,000 prize check from the Indiana Corn Marketing Council (ICMC), and perhaps a future in manufacturing. Clayton said there are two companies in Texas and Indianapolis showing interest in helping them test the product with actual fireworks once they and Purdue are legally able to enter into a business relationship following the contest.

Explosives testing, perhaps for obvious reasons, is the one thing they weren’t able to do much of during a student competition. “There’s a lot of legal aspects involved in (making) fireworks,” she pointed out.

The team’s idea came from Parobek, but Clayton said there’s a push in the fireworks industry to come up with materials that biodegrade better than strawboard. It takes about 20 months to biodegrade; though the contest time hasn’t allowed practical testing of it, the team thinks Sky Maize will biodegrade faster.
Second, the water-resistant Sky Maize is 85 percent lighter and costs about a quarter of what strawboard casing does to make in the United States. And, the casing might blow apart smaller than strawboard when the fireworks explode.

“It’s just unpredictable where that casing’s going to land,” Parobek said.

He and Clayton, from Indiana, are juniors studying chemistry, as is Navotnaya, from Uzbekistan. Hoeing is an Indiana junior studying ag systems management. Their faculty advisors were Strother Brann and David McMillin.

A runner-up ICMC check for $10,000 went to the Fog-Away team, comprised of Purdue sophomores Mitch French of Indiana, in biological engineering, and Benjamin Lins of Wisconsin, in chemical engineering; and juniors Anbo Wang of China, in ag economics, and Hannah Doren of Illinois, majoring in food science. Their advisors were W. Scott Downey and Nathan Mosier.

Fog-Away is a dual-action glass defogger Lins describes as a cross between Windex and Rain-X. “You can use it on your mirror in your bathroom, and you can take a shower and it doesn’t fog up,” he said; friends have also used it on their glasses to prevent fogging.
Fog-Away is made from corn oil propanediol and ethanol. Rubbing it on a mirror or other glass surface forms a translucent layer of solution across it, Lins said, and the anti-condensation effect can last for more than a week, by their testing.

One of the biggest problems in development was figuring out how to keep it from streaking the glass.

As for coming up with the idea, “We basically thought of many day-to-day problems” to try to solve, he said. “Mitch swam a lot in high school and had problems with his goggles (fogging up) … and we branched out” from there.

He observed this might be ideal for other students who have to share tiny bathrooms, keeping the mirror fog-free for one to use while another showers.

Another entrant in the Corn Competition was Xylamaize Gel, developed by Indiana seniors Sachit Revankar, majoring in chemical engineering, and Ziang Chen, studying pharmaceutical sciences, and advised by Stephen Byrn and Elaine Mosakowski.
Chen said the gel contains a co-polymer made with xylan from the cornstalk. It is intended as a drug delivery system. He explained it preserves drugs and extends their shelf life, and can be engineered to time-release the drugs as a doctor wishes.

He said the idea came from one of their advisors, who wanted a delivery matrix system for a drug they were developing.