Polymers + agriculture = $$$


SALEM, Ohio — A new task force in Ohio is looking beyond ethanol and biofuels to shape the state’s next agricultural revolution.

The Ohio Agriculture to Chemicals, Polymers, and Advanced Materials Task Force has been chargedby the state legislature to figure out how to build opportunities between the state’s two largest industries: agriculture and polymers.

The 13 task force members were named in March and were scheduled to meet again April 3. They are to report back to the General Assembly and the governor by June 14, listing recommendations on how to jump-start Ohio’s bioproducts industry, connecting the agriculture and polymer industries.

Nothing new

The history of polymer chemicals started with agriculture, so it’s fitting that agriculture gets a rebirth through polymer chemicals, said task force member Stephen Myers, director of the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center, or OBIC.

Procter & Gamble started its soap- and candle-making business with animal lard and oils and Sherwin Williams started its paint dynasty with flaxseed and linseed oil, he explained.

“It’s not radical and it shouldn’t be surprising to people,” Myers said. “The chemical polymer industry was born out of agriculture, so making the connection back to it is not that unusual.”

“We’re linked through history and we’ll be linked in the future.”

Already happening

The state’s soybean and corn growers’ associations have long funded research and development on new uses for the farm commodities. That research, and other research on the national level, spurred the development of soy-based ink toner, powder coatings, corn-based carpet and plastic utensils.

The polymer-ag connection is taking a look at petroleum- or oil-derived products to see if they can be made out of renewable plant materials or animal byproducts instead, explained Dwayne Siekman, executive director of the Ohio Corn Growers Association.

From an economic standpoint, as oil prices climb, it’s more cost-effective than ever to explore the connection, Siekman added. From an environmental standpoint, developing more biobased materials to replace petroleum-based products makes sense, too.

The U.S. Department of Energy predicts up to 50 percent of the chemical and materials demand will be supplied by renewable feedstocks by 2050. Because of the strong industries that already exist here, Ohio could be poised to lead the pack, proponents say.

“I don’t think agriculture’s ever been in this position before,” Siekman said. “We’re really looked at as the industry that’s on the move.”

“We could really change the landscape of the state.”

Domestic independence

The use of chemical polymers and advanced materials is everywhere, emphasized OBIC’s Myers, from the clothing you wear to the chair you sit in and the car you drive.

“We need to have materials to survive and we can’t be dependent on anyone else for those materials,” he added.

“When you become too dependent on a source that’s not reliable, you really begin to jeopardize your national and economic security.”

Funding in the wings

Ohio’s polymer and advanced materials industry has benefited from the state’s Third Frontier project, a 10-year $1.6 billion initiative to expand high-tech research and innovation that started in 2002.

The Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center, for example, was created at Ohio State through a $11.6 million Third Frontier grant.

And if the governor’s proposed $1.7 billion jobs stimulus package becomes reality, $100 million from the bond issue would be earmarked for investments in bioproducts that use renewable sources.

It was that funding support that drew the attention of Ohio Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-32nd, who asked for, and got, a seat on the task force.

“If we’re successful in passing the governor’s initiative, we really will have a significant advantage to fund and attract research and development,” said Cafaro, who is also the task force vice chairman.

“I really believe the climate is right for something like this.”

Cafaro calls her district a microcosm of Ohio, with aging industrial complexes in one portion and a rural, agricultural base in another.

She is already trying to put together a more specific bioproducts and economic stimulus bill, but is waiting to see if the task force recommends anything that should be included.

Need more research

Those dollars may have to stay in the lab for awhile, because it will take a lot more research for the ag-polymer connection to take off, said Doug O’Brien, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture and task force chairman.

There are commercial applications already on the market, but O’Brien said there needs to be more research and development, and small-scale pilot type work with different products.

O’Brien and several of the task force members said a biorefinery is critical to getting the technology and the products to market, and to developing that market.

He said there has been interest expressed by several companies in developing such a biorefinery, but could not comment further.


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