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Originally published Sunday, June 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Factories turning corn into plastics

He operates 90,000 feet of hissing pipes and dozens of enormous churning vats, an industrial jungle with a single, remarkable purpose: "Essentially,"...

Los Angeles Times

BLAIR, Neb. — He operates 90,000 feet of hissing pipes and dozens of enormous churning vats, an industrial jungle with a single, remarkable purpose: "Essentially," plant manager Bill Suehr says, "we've got corn coming in at one end and plastic coming out the other."

In a hot, noisy factory that smells of Frosted Flakes, yeast and wet farm animals, agribusiness giant Cargill has set out to lead a new industrial revolution, one fed by the green fields of the Midwest rather than the oil fields of the Middle East.

Sprawled across a square mile of prairie, a series of automated assembly lines turns raw corn kernels first into sugary syrup and then into white pellets that can be spun into silky fabric or molded into clear, tough plastic.

The end products — which include T-shirts, forks and coffins — look, feel and perform like traditional polyester and plastic made from a petroleum base. But the manufacturing process consumes 50 percent less fossil fuel, even after accounting for the fuel needed to plant and harvest the corn.

With oil prices nearing $60 a barrel, goods made from grain also compare favorably on price. Chemists and engineers from private corporations and research universities are racing to figure out how to substitute Iowa's bounty for Iraq's. The goal: to substitute crops, weeds and even animal waste for the petroleum that fuels much of U.S. manufacturing.

The Energy Department is so enthusiastic that it is aiming to convert 25 percent of chemical manufacturing to an agricultural base by 2030.

Chemistry at work

Biotech harvest


The technology that turns corn into blankets and many other consumer goods is decades old. In the 1920s and '30s, Henry Ford experimented with using crops, mostly soy, to make auto parts. But petroleum proved easier to convert into plastics; at the time, it also seemed a much more modern, forward-looking material. Plus, it was cheap. As late as 1970, oil cost about $3 a barrel, not much more than a bushel of corn.

These days, corn still costs about $2 a bushel. It makes a good substitute for nearly-$60-a-barrel oil because, like petroleum, it contains carbon, the essential building block for plastic.

In theory, any carbon source would work in these new factories; engineers say they'd like to replace corn one day with a crop that requires much less fertilizer and pesticide, such as wild grass. They might even be able to use agricultural waste, such as the cornstalks left in the field after harvesting. For now, though, raw kernels are the easiest to process.

Source: Los Angeles Times

Cargill is the first to commercialize the new technology, producing 300,000 pounds of pellets a day, but its rivals are not far behind.

DuPont, which invented polyester and nylon, has its own corn-based fabric in the works. An Arkansas company called BioBased Technologies just opened a factory that uses soy instead of petroleum to make polyurethane for use in seat cushions, shoe soles and spray-foam insulation. The clothing company Of the Earth, based in Oregon, sells T-shirts and yoga pants made from soy fiber.

University professors across the Midwest are turning their labs into miniature biofactories, transforming soybean oil into mattresses and chicken feathers into golf tees — even, if all goes well, corn into cellphones. One professor sponsors an annual soybean-technology contest; past winners have turned beans into ski wax, candles and nail-polish remover.

"Anything you can make out of petroleum, I can make out of corn and soybeans," said Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University.

Environmentally friendly

Skeptics question the economic viability of such projects.

When Cargill launched its factory in 2002, its pellets were far more expensive than equivalent material made from oil. Wild Oats Markets, an early customer, paid 50 percent more for takeout containers made from the bioplastic.

But in the past two years, the Cargill plant has become more efficient and oil prices have soared.

The result: The "corn-tainers" in the deli now cost Wild Oats 5 percent less than traditional plastic, said Wild Oats spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele.

Other products made with the corn-based pellets are more expensive. Depending on how they process the material, manufacturers report that using Cargill's pellets raises costs by up to 25 percent. But more manufacturers in the United States and abroad are willing to pay that premium for a product they perceive as environmentally friendly.

As Kathleen Bader, chief executive officer of Cargill's subsidiary NatureWorks, tells customers: "We're using material that's renewable in 90 days instead of 90 million years."

Converted into a biodegradable plastic, the pellets are molded into water bottles, portable CD players, auto parts and even coffins (sold in the Netherlands). The plastic also is used as packaging for Del Monte fresh-cut fruit and Newman's Own organic salads.

Other companies are processing the pellets into fibers that can be used for T-shirts, carpets and supersoft diaper wipes.

Pacific Coast Feather has rolled out a line of linens made from the corn pellets. Faribault Mills is marketing a $100 wool-and-corn blanket that Chief Executive Michael Harris calls luxuriously soft. (One drawback: If you leave it in a hot dryer too long, it might melt.)

Just a drop in oil bucket

Even if it takes off, biomanufacturing will never wean the nation entirely from oil.

Roughly 7 to 10 percent of the fossil fuel consumed in the United States is used to manufacture plastics and fibers, according to the Department of Energy. If corn replaced petroleum in every factory, the nation would cut oil consumption by hundreds of millions of barrels a year but still would require billions more for heat, power and fuel.

Given that limitation, some critics view all the hoopla as an agribusiness con, more about selling corn than saving the Earth.

"The main motivation is there is only so much high-fructose corn syrup you can pack into sodas. This is another way to turn corn into products people will buy," said Tillman Gerngross, an associate professor of engineering at Dartmouth College who specializes in biotechnology.

But other scientists maintain that the new technology offers genuine environmental benefits, beyond the reduction in fossil-fuel use.

They point to the huge problem of "e-waste," the 2.2 million tons of cellphones, computers and other electronics dumped in landfills each year. If those products were made of bioplastic, they could be composted. In the right conditions — warm and humid — they would degrade within months, dissolving into carbon dioxide and water.

At Purdue University, Bernie Tao, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, believes so passionately in the future of turning crops into consumer goods that he has developed a science kit for children that uses corn and soy to make crystals, crayons and adhesives.

"We need to teach our young students that chemistry is nothing to be scared of," he said. "It's all about the stuff growing outside their windows."

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