A century ago, the renowned botanist George Washington Carver made rubber from sweet potatoes, marble from wood shavings, and ink, dye and insulating board from peanuts. Working to solve the challenge of crop surpluses, he developed some 300 industrial uses for abundant, renewable peanuts.
Though George Washington Carver pointed the way 100 years ago, America is just beginning to tap the enormous industrial potential of plants.
“Since the early 1900s, we’ve devoted billions of dollars to petroleum research,” says AURI Deputy Director Keith Sannes, a polymer chemist, “and we’ve developed thousands and thousands of petroleum products. In the last 20 years, we’ve started to do the same thing with materials we grow.”
Over the next generation, scientists will make great advances in refining crops, says Roger Ruan, a University of Minnesota biosystems and agricultural engineer. Refineries will fractionate plant material into components that can be converted to all sorts of high-value products — adhesives, plastics, building materials, lubricants, solvents, paints, inks, textiles, fuels.
At some point, Ruan predicts, “biorefining will replace petroleum refining.”
That won’t happen any time soon, though, cautions Max Norris, an AURI fats and oils scientist. The shift to a plant-dependent economy “will be an evolution, not a revolution.”
Still, Norris says, several trends are encouraging the transition to biobased products. Strong consumer interest in biodegradables, concern for the environment, and political turmoil in oil-producing regions are creating a favorable climate for development. Government tax incentives and utilization targets are also fostering growth, he says. There’s even a national marketing program in the works, called “Buy Bio.”
Biobased industrial products are steadily entering the market. Mells Industries of Des Moines, Iowa, for example, is making paper from cornstalk fiber. Urethane Soy Systems Co. of Princeton, Ill., has introduced spray foam insulation made from soybeans. Cargill Dow opened the first world-scale manufacturing plant for PLA, a fiber made from natural plant sugars. Other U.S. companies are making building panels from straw, packing peanuts from cornstarch, ink from soybeans, even disposable plates from cornstalks and limestone.