When Alper Kiziltas, a native of Turkey, first came to the University of Maine as a master’s student in Forest Products Engineering in 2007, he admits his English was not very good.
“I spent four months in the Onward English Program just getting my English up to a good level,” Kiziltas said.
Now a doctoral candidate at UMaine’s School of Forest Resources program, Kiziltas has wasted no time putting his English skills to good use. Two weeks ago, he won a scholarship from the Society of Plastics Engineers for his contributions to the field of organic, composite structures, which are prevalent in the automotive industry.
“Generally, automotive companies use cheap, low density materials to reinforce plastic, which are used in a variety of parts,” Kiziltas said. “But these materials are often inorganic, and they are not biodegradable, so they are bad for the environment. We are trying to use microcrystalline cellulose material, which is biodegradable and better for the environment to reinforce these plastics.”
Before Kiziltas researched microcrystalline cellulose it was thought to be useless for composite structures found in automotives due to its perceived weak chemical structure. The applications of Kiziltas’ research could have resounding effects on the automotive industry: The use of natural fiber blends, like the one Kiziltas is researching, would be less harmful to the environment.
But not only are the outputs of this organic cellulose material to reinforce plastics better for the environment, the inputs are more environmentally friendly, too.
“We took recycled carpet [fibers], which have important and valuable polymers, and used them in the process to create this organic cellulose,” Kiziltas said. “We call the whole process, ‘From under the foot to under the hood.’”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 4 billion pounds of carpet are thrown away every year, only 1 percent of which is recycled. When carpets are thrown away improperly, they release toxic chemicals into the air, which degrade air quality.
“We need to think about our future; we are living on borrowed time,” Kiziltas said, whose wife, Esra, is also pursuing her doctorate in the School of Forest Resources at UMaine. “I’d like to leave behind something better for our children.”
After the couple met in Turkey and came to study in Maine, they quickly became involved with the Turkish community here. Kiziltas is the Program Director and Outreach Coordinator at the Turkish Cultural Center in Maine, and met with Governor Paul LePage to celebrate Turkish Cultural Day last Spring.
While Turkey is where Kiziltas was born, he is just as comfortable here in Maine.
“I was a little nervous before coming here before I came, but now I love the people; I love Maine,” he said. “This is my home now.”