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To Replace Oil, U.S. Experts See Amber Waves of Plastic

Times Staff Writer

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 Inc. 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% less fossil fuel, even after accounting for the fuel needed to plant and harvest the corn.

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With oil prices near $60 a barrel, goods made from grain also compare favorably on price. So chemists and engineers are racing to figure out how to substitute Iowa’s bounty for Iraq’s. The goal: to use crops, weeds and even animal waste in place of the petroleum that fuels much of American manufacturing.

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

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

DuPont Co., which invented polyester and nylon, has its own corn-based fabric in the works.

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An Arkansas firm 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 firm 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 bio-factories, 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.

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% more for takeout containers made from the bio-plastic.

But over the last two years, the Cargill plant has gotten more efficient -- and oil prices have soared.

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

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Other products made with the corn-based pellets are pricier. Depending on how they process the material, some manufacturers report that using Cargill’s pellets raises their costs by as much as 25%. But a growing number in the United States and abroad is willing to pay that premium for a product perceived as environmentally friendly.

As Kathleen Bader, chief executive of Cargill’s subsidiary NatureWorks, tells her 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 is also 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 super-soft diaper wipes.

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

“We care about the environment,” Harris said, “and we just thought: Wow, wouldn’t this be cool, if we could replace our petroleum-based acrylics with corn.”

The technology that turns corn into blankets -- and so many other consumer goods -- is actually decades old.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Henry Ford experimented with using crops, mostly soy, to make auto parts.

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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 $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 less fertilizer and pesticide, such as wild grass. They may 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.

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

Roughly 7% to 10% of the fossil fuel consumed in the U.S. 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 would still 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,” said Tillman Gerngross, an associate professor of engineering at Dartmouth College who specializes in biotechnology. “This is another way to turn corn into products people will buy.”

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

In particular, 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 bio-plastic, 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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