USF doctoral student invents wood alternative to combat inflated lumber prices

With inflated lumber prices and pricey wood alternatives, a Dade City inventor and doctoral student is looking to change the market. 

John Cotter invented a product using recycled plastic materials that looks like concrete but can be used like wood.

"You can take a normal wood screw and treat it like wood and drive the screw in, and it just goes in," said Cotter, a Ph. D candidate at the University of South Florida.

He came up with the recycled polymer product to replace pressure-treated lumber, and its problems.

"It does have the warping tendencies. It does get bent. It does get twisted," said Cotter, of regular lumber.

Over the last year, Cotter said he developed the product as part of his doctoral studies at USF. With the help of a National Science Foundation grant and professor Rasim Guldiken, they connected to potential customers, finding a market with farmers and homeowners.

"We went all over the US and interviewed 120 potential customers. We went as north as Wisconsin, as west as Arizona. We interviewed all these people. We got to Georgia," said Guldiken, a mechanical engineering professor at USF. "The life of a wood fence is about 10 to 15 years. That’s the range. So we came up with an idea where we can make this much longer."

The product would be particularly helpful in places with a lot of rain like Georgia and Florida. They found out contractors ran into problems having to replace fence posts soon after installing them because of weather changes, Cotter said. They hope the invention tackles some of those issues.

Replacing fences adds up, especially with inflated wood prices.

"I’m trying to get it as cheap as possible so that it can compete directly with wood," said Cotter.

So now, the focus is on making samples and launching a business, giving a durable option that helps the environment and the wallet.

"If I can get it in the hands of people, I’m pretty sure they will like it," said Cotter. "[I’m] trying to get it out the door, so people can feel the material. They can see the material. They can use it, and realize, yeah, this can work as a replacement for wood."

Cotter said he will graduate with his doctorate degree at the end of the fall semester this year. He said he has a lot of work ahead of him with launching his business and tweaking the product. Guldiken said the invention has an edge.

"The advantage of this product is it can be on the market soon. It doesn’t need the development stages and years of research and development to be on the market. So this can be on the market by the end of this year," said Guldiken. "It’s the same price as wood. It doesn’t rot, and that’s helps everybody, all our citizens, especially in the state of Florida."