SALEM, Ohio – Corn’s uses go beyond crayons, cosmetics and candles.
Through newer technology and the development of polylactic acid, researchers use the crop and its by-products in everything from carpets to clothes to carryout containers.
How it works. In silos or silage bags, corn starches and sugars ferment naturally in a process similar to making wine, according to Bridget Weigel, communications coordinator for Cargill Dow.
The process creates lactic acid. In laboratories, researchers take that same acid and link into a high-performance polymer called polylactide, or polylactic acid.
The polymer, branded by Cargill Dow as NatureWorks PLA, serves as the basis for several new products.
The acid can be molded, formed or extruded into a plastic-like material, giving it a wide variety of uses.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have yet to find anything made from conventional plastics that can’t be made from the acid.
Ingeo. Perhaps the most remarkable use of the acid is Ingeo, the world’s first synthetic fiber made from an annually renewable resource.
Ingeo, made when fibers are extruded from the polymer and woven, is also trademarked by Cargill Dow.
Once produced, the fiber has a natural feel that enhances the end product when used in apparel, furnishings, fiberfill, carpet and more.
An Atlanta, Ga. -based company adopted the fibers for use in their carpet tiles. InterfaceFLOR’s Web site describes their ‘Spring Planting’ line of 19 1/2-inch square tiles as having a texture between sisal and wool.
Because of the corn base, the tiles are stain resistant and are hand washable. They can also be installed on top of existing surfaces.
“Ingeo fiber offers performance on par with conventional synthetic materials, yet, the raw material to make the fiber can be regrown every year,” said Vann Brown, InterfaceFLOR’s global platform leader.
“Therefore, Ingeo fiber allows consumers to experience a product that actually helps lessen their impact on the earth at the same time.”
What’s so special? The corn-based material has environmental advantages beyond the traditional petroleum-based materials. The acid makes the items completely biodegradable.
For example, InterfaceFLOR’s carpet tiles can be returned to the company for composting.
Because five weeks of composting leaves no trace of the acid, those in the horticulture industry are interested in developing biodegradable materials for planting containers and packaging, according to ongoing research at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Many uses. Because of its biodegradability, its developers say it can be used in everything from food and electronics packaging to carpets to surgical sutures.
Cargill Dow’s research also says NatureWorks PLA is an alternative to cellophane and is well-suited for use in single-serving beverage bottles and other food containers.
“We’re not out to displace plastic products, but we’re certainly competing,” Cargill Dow’s Weigel said.
One Omaha, Neb., manufacturing company already uses 100 percent NatureWorks PLA in retail food packaging. The material is strong and blocks flavors and aromas and can be recycled by consumers.
Coca-Cola used the material in soft drink cups at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Utah, and Sony Pacific uses it in blister packaging for portable radios and mini-discs.
“We’re definitely rolling ahead. Soon [NatureWorks] is going to be around every corner and consumers will see more and more of it,” Weigel said.
Market impact. According to Nebraska’s Industrial Agricultural Products Center, the potential impact on the corn market is tremendous.
Cargill Dow’s Blair, Neb., production facility will require 40,000 bushels of corn per day to run at capacity.
A potential 1.7 billion bushels of corn could be used each year to make plastic products through the new technology.
The renewable substitute also lessens the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. In tests, the process used to make the material requires 20 percent to 50 percent less fossil fuels than petroleum-based plastics.
It is estimated that the consumer market uses more than 42 million pounds of plastic per year.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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