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Just one word (bio)plastics

Minnesota could become a leader in the new bioplastics industry, says Denny Timmerman, AURI project director.

The state already has clusters of renewable-materials companies that are converting agricultural products into biofuels, chemicals and bioplastics. The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota reports that more than 75 Minnesota academic, private and public organizations are now involved in biomass catalysis and synthesis; more than 80 Minnesota organizations work in materials science. And at least a dozen Minnesota companies, large and small, produce renewable bioplastics and biopolymers.

Minnesota is blessed with many of the resources needed to grow this emerging sector, Timmerman says, including a robust agricultural economy and established materials companies. A recent report from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, “Destination 2025,” tallies some of the state’s assets:

• Abundant biomaterials feedstocks.

These include corn, soybeans, forest products, crop residues, and food processing and biofuel coproducts.

• Research muscle.

Minnesota has powerful research and education capabilities. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are training workers for the new “bio-industries” and making advances in materials science and engineering, genomics, nanotechnology, biomass processing and other life sciences.

• Innovation know-how.

Minnesota has a history of developing innovative alternative uses for agricultural products, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

• Progressive environmental attitudes.

State public policy supports biofuel development and Minnesota consumers are interested in buying renewable products.

Minnesota has other advantages that could foster a renewable-materials industry, says Harold Stanislawski, executive director of the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission. He is leading an effort to help west central Minnesota manufacturers use renewable polymers.

“We have very good plastics manufacturers,” Stanislawski says, plus “a strong tool and die industry, an educated workforce, and unused manufacturing plant capacity.” Just as important, “we’re innovative,” he says.

Today, plant-based plastics are no more than a tiny drop in the huge vat of petro-based plastics. Annual U.S. bioplastics production has reached a little more than 300 million pounds, says Gary Noble, founder and CEO of Bio-Plastic Solutions of Blooming Prairie, Minn., which makes extruded bioplastic building components. By comparison, U.S. production of petro-based plastic resins topped 100 billion pounds in 2008, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Some have compared Minnesota’s fledgling biomaterials sector to the state’s medical devices industry 50 years ago. “The corn and soybean growers have been working to advance biobased materials and bioplastics for many years,” Timmerman says. Now, “there are a lot of opportunities. The timing seems to be right.”

To read the “Destination 2025” report, go to