PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Crop uses are wildly diverse. We’ve known them for so long as food and feed, but increasingly, everything from corn and soybeans to flax and wood chips can ultimately become anything from skin cream to a coffee mug.
Experts discussed what the future might hold as part of the Biobased Innovations Panel during the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute’s New Uses forum on April 12.
Shifting consumer habits have led to increased interest in green products and even green packaging. This is good news for farmers, whose crops will fuel the creation of such items.
Currently, within the commodity chemical arena, biobased products make up 5 percent of total business. However, the sector is growing 8 percent annually, said panel moderator Dr. Jill Zullo, vice president of bio-industrials for North America at Cargill.
"Someday soon, we’ll all have renewable yoga pants," Zullo joked.
LEGO even announced in March that it would be rolling out its first LEGO bricks made with plant-based plastic later this year.
The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute is in the business of helping Minnesota innovators get from idea to commercialization and ultimately benefiting Minnesota’s economy, including the Biobased Innovations panelists:
• Marc Hillmyer is director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota. Polymers are the molecules that make up plastics and have traditionally been petroleum-based. At the center, Hillmyer works with students and top polymer experts at other universities to rethink plastics. In addition, the center is guided by an industrial advisory board.
"We need industry, and industry needs us," Hillmyer said.
Ultimately, the center produces the basic building blocks so that companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola can create items to fit their needs. Hillmyer and his colleagues have also produced biobased polymers that can help clean up the environment and improve plastics recycling.
• Chad Ulven is a mechanical engineering professor at North Dakota State University and also cofounder and chief technical officer for c2Renew, a company that creates biocomposite innovations. His research focuses on how hemp and flax can act as reinforcement in plastics. That work evolved into creating c2Renew, which Ulven called a specialty compounder of bio- and petroleum-based plastics.
c2Renew started out working with John Deere and Bobcat to make sustainable internal parts, but pivoted to working with niche companies that wanted their material to "scream green," Ulven said. Since then, c2Renew has developed a biobased toothbrush with bogobrush, pens from beer, hemp and cotton with Green Spring Technologies, 3D printer filaments, packaging for the medicinal and recreational marijuana industries, coffee mugs made from coffee and even a Stratocaster guitar from trash.
"We’re exploring and having fun," Ulven said.
• Chad Friese is the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company general manager.
The Benson, Minn.-based farmer cooperative was one of Minnesota’s first ethanol plants and was the first to put out E85. The co-op also produces consumable alcohol, including certified organic, which it sells to distillers large and small. They have also looked into gasification, wherein crop materials could serve as a natural gas replacement, but the price point isn’t feasible for bringing that to market at this time, Friese said.
Looking ahead, the company is looking at thin stillage clarification, which would yield a high protein feed; and catalytic conversion of alcohol to green chemicals, among other things.
• Mike Youngerberg is senior director of product development and commercialization with the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council and a member of the Minnesota Biodiesel Council.
In his role, he has worked with AURI and the United Soybean Board to find innovative uses for soybeans and soybean byproducts.
Soybeans can be found in formaldehyde-free products, insulation, sealants, low-VOC products and more. Most recently, USB and Goodyear Tire have released tires that incorporate soybean oil into the treads to improve all-weather traction.
"Why are these products out there?" Youngerberg said. "Because somebody’s asking for it."
Developing biobased products is challenging, the panelists agreed. Top "pain points" included building and maintaining supply-chain relationships, the amount of time it takes for new plant breeds to grow, educating others about the time and importance of basic research, and anticipating the best ways to diversify and continue to bring value back to the community.
Regardless of the idea, it’s always worth asking "What is the value add?" Zullo said. "Focus on functionality and people will pay for it."