Alternative Growth

A graduate student and an alumnus are commercializing products that could mean significant cost savings for farmers across the country while reducing waste and work time.

Tony Bova is a doctoral candidate at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education.

The company he and alumnus Jeff Beegle (‘17) started, mobius (formerly Grow Bioplastics), is developing a family of renewable, biodegradable alternatives to oil-based plastic products destined for landfills.

Many farmers use oil-based plastic sheeting to retain ground moisture and temperature in their fields while keeping out weeds. But there are steep costs—often in excess of $100 an acre—when it must be removed and disposed of at the end of the growing season.

Bova’s research with Amit Naskar, leader of the Carbon and Composites Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, focuses on creating plastics based on lignin. This naturally occurring polymer found in all trees and grasses is also produced as an industrial byproduct from biofuel and papermaking processes.

Mobius is working to develop lignin-based plastic into a variety of products including biodegradable containers for planting seedlings, flowers, trees, and more.

The company also aims to create thin mulch films that could be plowed into the ground at the end of a farmer’s growing season to biodegrade in the soil. It could make a dramatic difference compared to using plastic sheeting.

Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle demonstrate the properties of lignin-based plastic.
Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle demonstrate the properties of lignin-based plastic.

“We hope to eliminate as much as eight tons of plastic waste from a single 100-acre farm, while keeping our product at the same price as our oil-based competitors—something other biodegradable alternatives can’t claim,” Bova says.

Testing will help determine how well their material degrades and whether it functions well in several different climates and soil types.

“We’re hoping to recruit a total of 20 testing farm locations across the country,” Bova says.

In 2018, mobius received a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant. It will help them validate the science behind their technology and hire their first employees in East Tennessee.

In 2017, Beegle completed his master’s degree in microbiology. He serves as the chief science office for Mobius.

In 2016, their entrepreneurial efforts earned the top prize when they competed in the spring Vol Court Pitch Competition and the Boyd Venture Challenge. The company also reached the finals of several other national contests.

Each step in their product development brings these UT environmentalists closer to helping farmers nationwide improve our food system’s sustainability and reduce plastic waste.

This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.