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Headhot of Doug Root

Little things could make big impact

–by Doug Rood, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist of Biomass & Renewable Products Technologies

What if mustard seed was used to not only make prepared mustard, but also the bottle that contained the condiment sitting on the grocery store shelf? Emerging processes and feedstocks may make this a reality and provide new opportunities for agricultural products and coproducts to enter exciting arenas.

Some of the world’s largest agricultural companies and foremost chemical companies are now working together to expand the list of materials produced from agricultural sources. But it’s more than just new products, it’s the way those products can be derived. Many biological processes being developed in research labs today are designed specifically to utilize agricultural feedstocks.

New processes for making chemicals from agricultural materials rely upon biological systems of yeasts, bacteria and enzymes. Traditional processes for producing plastics rely on chemistry and usually involve high pressures, high temperatures and expensive catalysts. Emerging alternative biotechnology processes may be just around the corner. For example, biological processes may allow materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), used to create bioplastics and even clothing, to be produced from gases, such as methane.

What is exciting for AURI scientists is that this increased role of biological processing will create new opportunities for the utilization of agricultural commodities, coproducts and possibly even production of new crops.

One example of a biologically-derived platform ingredient is furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME). It’s a mouthful of a chemical name and it’s the target of a new technology partnership between DuPont and ADM. FDME can be produced from fructose (as in high fructose corn syrup) and is an intermediate along the path toward clear packaging films and replacement of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottles many consumers find objectionable. A proposed pilot plant in Decatur, Illinois will produce 60 tons of FDME per year.

Improvements in fuel ethanol production efficiency, biodiesel processing, butanol production and PLA production have already been realized as a result of biotechnology applications to those industries. It’s likely there will be on-going improvements in the efficiency and utilization of agricultural feedstocks for many more years.

One frequently mentioned goal of biological processes is the utilization of non-food feedstocks for fuel and chemical production. Some inedible relatives of the mustard plant, pennycress, and camelina are well suited to the production of bio-jet fuel and other chemicals. These crops could provide farmers with an alternative crop that has environmental and economic potential.

Large scale biological processing is still years away and may never fully replace traditional processes. However, innovative companies and researchers are proving that it can be done and success will also be dependent upon economic factors.

It is an exciting time with several indicators showing the times are changing. Agricultural commodities and coproducts may be well positioned to benefit from these changes.