In this, the last of a three part series on the potential of corn, Vital depicts the ways corn is quickly becoming the replacement to oil. Its use as a biofuel is well-known, but scientists are developing ways to use other parts of the corn plant to replace petroleum based products.
Adding value to strengthen an economic bottom line. Improving environmental sustainability for the greater good. It seems these two goals are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the corn industry is coming closer and closer to achieving both, with benefits going all the way back to the farm gate.
As corn growers have been adapting new production methods to extract greater value while sustaining the environment, researchers and developers have been hard at work on ways to extract even greater value out of a kernel of corn in ways that also safeguard the environment.
Everything from plastics to packing materials, household cleaners to industrial chemicals and fabrics to fiber are providing consumers with corn-based alternatives.
The impact of new corn-based products have broad impacts stretching beyond the corn industry. Additional biorefineries can mean greater rural development and renewable products foster greater energy security for the US. Some even hold the promise of helping to meet growing needs of global food security.
A REASON FOR CHANGE
The idea of making non-food products from plants is not new, but the rise of the oil industry had historically meant it was more economical and efficient to make plastics and other such products from petroleum. But when oil prices climbed in the 1970s just as public interest in the environment grew, interest in converting corn into usable biochemicals began to spawn a multitude of environmentally friendly products.
These biochemicals are being used in sanitizing products, household cleaners and related products. Corn starch-derived chemicals, which are believed to have the potential to significantly reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, are another popular research area. Polyols, such as propylene glycol, ethylene glycol and glycerol, can be used in food and health care products as well as antifreeze and the production of plastics.
Corn starch is being formulated into packing materials that can dissolve with water. Corn-based polymers are serving as precursors to a number of plastic products. The corn-derived polymer known as polylactic acid, or PLA, provides a renewable alternative in the creation of synthetic fibers and plastics, including uses in carpeting, bedding and plastic eating utensils.
Some of the biggest ideas for new corn products are coming in the tiniest of packages. Hans van Leeuwen, an Iowa State University Professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, led a group of researchers in developing a process adding a fungus to remove 80 percent of the organic material and all the solids in the thin stillage during the ethanol production process, allowing water and enzymes to be recycled back into production.
But their work didn’t begin and end at improving efficiency. They found their fungal process could result in feed products rich in protein, certain essential amino acids and other nutrients.
“Some byproducts, particularly the thin stillage, which is the liquid part of the leftovers from corn fermentation and distillation, has very little value. Our fungal process can turn it into useful high-protein animal feed and ultimately human food,” explains van Leeuwen. “The latter could be really significant to solve malnutrition problems in the Third World.”
Researchers estimate the technology can save up to $800 million a year in energy costs while adding another $400 million per year in valuable co-products.
Scott Weishaar, Vice President of Commercial Development for POET, explains there’s greater potential for the corn and biofuels industry today than just operating a plant that produces ethanol, CO2 and distillers grains.
“Our focus is on looking for valueadded products or processes we can produce in ethanol facilities that can move them toward becoming a full biorefinery,” he says.
One of those value-added products already generating a lot of excitement is POET’s new ethanol co-product, Inviz. Inviz is the company’s brand name for its version of zein, a biodegradable, low-nutrient protein found in corn. Inviz is extracted through a patentpending process developed by POET Research. It has the potential to replace petroleum-based ingredients in a variety of products ranging from pill coatings to plastic packaging, as well as food industry applications like food coatings and restaurant papers.
What makes Inviz so exciting, says Weishaar, is that it is a new ethanol co-product that takes the company beyond ethanol and distillers grains into plastics, films and coatings, something he sees as natural to POET being in the biorefinery business.
“It allows us to provide a renewable product to replace a petroleumbased one and we don’t need more corn to do it.” He anticipates the original product serving as a springboard for manufacturing a variety of related products to meet customer specifications.
The process of offering cornbased products to an existing marketplace is not without its challenges. Targeted companies often have long-term relationships with their existing suppliers. Manufacturers may have to make adjustments in their processes to accommodate new corn-based materials and ingredients. And the existing petroleum based plastics industry is not about to simply hand over a chunk of its market share, reminds Weishaar. Still, he remains optimistic that Inviz and other future products like it will succeed. Researcher van Leeuwen echoes some of Weishaar’s views that new product success is not without its challenges. When asked what he sees as a major hurdle in further development, he says, “Right now, it is to demonstrate our process on a pilot scale to convince investors to provide funding for full-scale application.”
To Colorado State University’s (CSU) Ken Reardon, Fort Collins, Colo., the investments POET and other companies are making in research and development on new uses for corn are absolutely essential moves, not just for the industry but for society as a whole. “I look at it two ways. First, fuel producers need to look at it from an economic standpoint. It’s always good to sell more than one product. Fuel is high volume, but low margin. These other products are not as big in volume, but margins are larger. Diversifying can protect the industry’s investment somewhat from the ups and downs typically seen in the fuel business.”
“Second, from society’s standpoint, it’s nice to come up with ways other than fossil fuelbased plastics and have the choice of products that might be more environmentally sustainable as well as having a domestic supply of the product available,” says Reardon, Director of CSU Sustainable Bioenergy Development Center, CSU Site Director for the Colorado Center for Biofuels and Biorefining and Professor and Associate Department Head for the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
He says the surge in public interest in “green products” can help to spur additional research and development of new cornbased bioproducts. But just being environmentally sound won’t carry the day.
“Is there green interest? Definitely. But regardless of the nice feelings one seems to get from doing good for the environment, companies still need to be profitable,” Reardon reminds.
Pending legislation could have an impact on how achievable those profits might be.
“Climate change legislation could have potential. But the problem is the uncertainty. It’s hard for people to know where to invest. It will be better for us to get to the other side of things and know what we have to work with,” Reardon says. “If the legislation puts a cost on waste products, like greenhouse gas emissions, it has the potential to change the economics of the whole industry,” Reardon says. While the legislation may cost some industries, it creates opportunities for others. And the biofuels industry has the potential to be on the receiving end of those opportunities.
“I don’t think the use of corn or corn grain to make biofuels is going to go away, but the rest of the corn plant and grasses will also become more important,” he says. “And it’s not necessarily so that corn used for fuel will only make ethanol. There are other efficient fuels out there that can be made with corn grain.”
In September 2009, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) conducted a nationwide survey to measure public support for corn used as food, feed and fuel, as well as other new co-products. Support for ethanol as a fuel alternative received a 67 percent approval rating and 73 percent supported the use of corn for other products such as plastics and fiber.
“We expected to see some pretty solid results in this polling, but the final numbers were beyond what we imagined,” said NCGA President Darrin Ihnen, a farmer in Hurley, S.D., in response to the survey results.
Reardon paints a picture of environment and economics from his perspective. “People want renewables, but there is a limit on the premium they are willing to pay,” he reminds. But policy changes that provide additional incentives for research on renewable products — including those that are corn-based — may result in a new, invigorated landscape for adding value to corn as well as the environment.
Some might think Clay Mitchell to be a bit of a visionary, an inventive thinker. Certainly there are those who would contend that his Ivy League degree in engineering sets him apart from most Midwest farmers.
But his training as an engineer has served him well, even after he left the halls of Harvard for Northeast Iowa to purchase his first 200 acres along a dusty stream in corn country, returning to a way of life that is a family legacy stretching back for generations. He’s seen those first couple hundred acres stretch to more than a couple thousand. And it’s perhaps that deep-rooted dedication to the life and occupation of growing crops that continues to feed his penchant for innovation, from early use of sustainable practices to being the first farm in the Midwest to use auto steering with GPS.
But in all the technologies that he’s considered — whether used, modified or discarded — there’s been an overwhelming desire to be both economically and environmentally sustainable.
“Those types of innovations — the kind that are sustainable while building added value — play well back in Iowa and other regions where corn growers like Mitchell continue to look for more value from corn while being mindful of their role in environmental stewardship. “We’re dealing with the environment, where consequences of what we do are irreversible,” he says. “But there is an economic way to deal with environmental issues.”
“I think the big incentive is wanting to maintain a productive land for my life and generations to come,” Mitchell relates. “My time here to take care of this land is just the blink of an eye.”
Mitchell likes to describe his farm as a place where technology and will, opportunity and ability, converge, and, he says, “Anything is possible.”