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How Corn Farmer Research Could Change the Future of Bioplastics

February 28, 2018

When grasping a plastic bottle, few people ever ponder the chemical ingredients or process used in making it. But, a determined group of farmers and researchers at the Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB) have done this very thing in their quest to make a greener bioplastic ingredient that will stimulate the future of the corn industry.

Using Iowa Corn Checkoff dollars to fund research into creating another demand for corn, ICPB holds U.S. patents on a proprietary production method using corn in the industrial manufacturing of a raw material, monoethylene glycol (MEG) used to make bioplastic. For this reason, ICPB’s patented and pioneering process won the first Consider Corn Challenge, a global competition initiated by the National Corn Growers Association to identify new and innovative uses for field corn as a renewable feedstock in the production of sustainable chemicals with significant market demand.

“As more manufacturers seek ways to produce their products from greener materials with greater efficiency while reducing their dependence on fossil fuels, ICPB’s corn-based MEG has the potential to meet a vast and growing market,” said Iowa Corn Research and Business Development Committee Chairman Pete Brecht. “By improving the manufacturing processes for bio-based materials, this method will continue to expand the renewable products market. Meaning enhanced yield of corn-based MEG over competition makes this bio-based process more competitive with less waste than current bio-based MEG. This one switch to a more renewable material will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and improve the environmental footprint for hundreds of consumer products.”

MEG is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of antifreeze, plastic bottles for pop or bottled water, and polyester clothes. Today, MEG makes up about 30 percent of bottles and polyester.

In 2016, 62 billion pounds of MEG were sold. It is predicted that global demand for MEG will grow at a 4 percent rate each year. If this 4 percent is captured by corn-based MEG, this could raise the demand for corn to an additional 94 million bushels a year.

“Patenting research that improves production efficiencies of corn-based bio-MEG helps us eliminate the need for petroleum-based ethylene derivatives by using a homegrown crop,” said Brecht. “By reducing the demand and reliance on fossil fuels, it will also contribute to environmental stewardship by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere through corn production.”

The traditional way to produce bio-MEG is through a conversion of sugar cane ethanol, usually sourced from Brazil, to ethylene, but still the majority of MEG comes from oil. ICPB’s new process in development can eliminate these added costs of bio-MEG by going from cane sugar to MEG in one step. This new corn-based MEG would be considered a “drop-in chemical”, meaning it would leave the manufacturing process and the product unchanged aside from it being partially bio-based.

Investment of checkoff dollars in research and business development allows for a direct return on Iowa corn farmer investments. Consequently, ICPB research programs have continued to grow. ICPB research programs aim to find new and innovative uses of corn, such as plastics and industrial chemicals. ICPB develops and licenses intellectual property then partners with companies; this strategy will increase the commercialization of new products related to corn and create new opportunities for corn farmers.

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The Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB), works to develop and defend markets, fund research, and provide education about corn and corn products to create opportunities for long-term Iowa corn grower profitability. For more information, visit iowacorn.org.

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