|To Replace Oil, U.S. Experts See Amber Waves of Plastic
American crops could be used in place of many products' petroleum
base, some scientists say.
By Stephanie Simon
Times Staff Writer
June 26, 2005
BLAIR, Neb. — 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
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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