MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- You've eaten it, sipped it in soft drinks and burned it in your gas tank. Now, you can sleep on it and soon, wear it on your back.
It's Minnesota's most abundant crop and now, thanks to breakthrough technology, the first annually renewable raw material that can replace petrochemicals in fiber and plastics.
Biodegradable, fire-resistant corn fiber is now available in competitively priced bedding products. It's scheduled to hit the U.S. fashion markets by next fall or spring 2004. And within six months, grocers and delicatessens will follow Japan and Europe's lead in selling food in clear containers made from corn-based resin.
Leading this new trend are chemists at Minnetonka-based Cargill Dow, who have invented a process they hope will revolutionize the way the world makes fabrics, food packaging and hundreds of other products.
Cargill Dow's patented corn resin is a form of plastic that can be spun into fibers. The technology was developed by agricultural processing giant Cargill Inc. and petrochemical producer Dow Chemical Co. in a joint venture that began in 1997. Cargill Dow is a stand-alone company.
Products made from the corn resin can decompose in composting landfills within 50 days and could dramatically reduce pollution as well as the world's reliance on crude oil to make polyesters, plastics and other products, said Patrick Gruber, vice president of Cargill Dow.
"We really can displace petrochemicals," he said. "We can make products that work. We can reduce the overall environmental footprint. We can make it more clean and green and more economical. We can do all of that with the technology we have today. That's pretty exciting."
Many government and industrial leaders are watching. Cargill Dow's process is "hugely significant," said Brent Erickson, vice president of industrial and environmental biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C. "This is the leading edge of a revolution that we're seeing in biotechnology."
Cargill Dow and its competitors, including DuPont and Metabolix, are taking industrial biotechnology into various manufacturing sectors and are creating a market that could exceed $280 billion by 2010, Erickson said.
"This is part of what is called the 'third wave' in biotechnology, the blooming of industrial technology beyond health care to make consumer goods," he said.
It's an industry born in the Midwest that will spread across rural areas worldwide, boosting economic development and providing new markets for farmers, Gruber said.
The market potential is huge. Each year, 150 million tons of fibers and 140 million tons of plastic are sold globally, said Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for Cargill Dow.
More than two-thirds of the $1.5 trillion global market for industrial chemicals and plastics potentially could be served by these renewable materials, said Jim Stoppert, senior director for industrial bioproducts development at Cargill Inc.
Two weeks ago, Cargill Dow announced alliances with 87 partners worldwide to help produce and sell the new corn fiber under the brand Ingeo. A combination of Latin and English, the word Ingeo (pronounced in-gee-oh) means "ingredients from the earth." Each company has agreed to use environmentally sound practices in production.
Ingeo is the first man-made fiber derived completely from raw materials that can be grown every year, Cargill Dow said. It represents a new era of meeting the world's textile needs while limiting the impact on natural resources, Gruber said.
Cargill Dow is moving toward sustainable production that would use renewable energy -- from plants, wind and sun -- to fuel its manufacturing plants rather than coal and natural gas, Gruber said.
The ability to use renewable crops to displace oil will have political implications, too. Consumers need only look around their offices and homes to see all of the petroleum-based plastics -- packaging materials, clothing, carpeting, bedding -- derived from imported oil.
"All of that comes from petroleum," Gruber said. "Not from coal, not from natural gas, but petroleum. That means it's from the oil in the Middle East or Venezuela."
Unlike petrochemical plastics, which can take centuries to decompose, the corn-based products are designed to biodegrade at composting facilities under certain conditions, including moisture and heat. Under the right conditions, the material breaks down faster than newspaper and turns to soil, Gruber said. Such composting sites are not yet common, and the products won't break down as quickly in conventional landfills.
The Cargill Dow chemists also believe that they are developing a technology platform that can be adapted to produce ethanol and other chemical products economically, Gruber said.
The technology also can help meet the most basic need of clothing the world's growing population, he said. Cotton can't keep up with the demand and the alternative, until now, was synthetic clothing made from oil.
As the market for the industrial biotechnology outstrips the capacity of Cargill Dow, the company intends to make the technology available to other companies through more licensing agreements, he said. Prices for the products should drop as more products become available and the technologies and performance are perfected, he said.
At their $300 million plant in Blair, Neb., the Cargill Dow chemists ferment, distill and build molecular chains of the carbon found in corn sugar, or dextrose. The chains, called polymers, are shaped into BB-sized resin pellets that other companies use to make the fibers and plastics.
Beyond the kernels, the resin also could be made from cornstalks, grasses, non-edible parts of rice, and other plants. Cargill Dow will use only materials that would not be eaten by people, O'Brien said.
Gruber said Ingeo fiber has characteristics that wick away perspiration and make production safer for workers and the products safer for consumers.
Among the 87 companies worldwide that have signed on with Cargill Dow as partners is Faribault Mills, formerly Faribault Woolen Mills, a 138 year-old company about 35 miles south of Minneapolis.
The mills have developed a plush, fire-resistant blanket made of Ingeo. Some versions are all corn fiber and others are blended with high-grade wool.
Dennis Melchert, chief operating officer at Faribault, had realized the industry-changing potential when he saw the corn fiber at a trade show in Germany in January 2002. He and Faribault Mills President Michael Harris believed they could create a product that the world had never seen.
The first blankets, in pastels, will be on store shelves by late spring, selling for about $100, Harris said.
Bedding products filled with corn fiber are now sold in 370 stores nationwide, including a handful of Minnesota stores. In Duluth, customers in Younkers' bath and bedding department recently clustered around a display of the corn bedding sold under Younkers' Generation label.
Department manager Bruce Johnson said curious shoppers push their face into the pillows to see if they smell like popcorn or a farm. They don't. People appreciate that the bedding is natural and hypoallergenic, he said.
"It's lightweight and has breathability, and the products hold up nicely," Johnson said, adding that his own corn pillow has remained fluffy. He's given pillows, which sell for $30 to $40, to all of his employees, who are trained to educate customers on the environmental benefits of corn bedding.
"People like it," Johnson said. "We don't get returns."
On the Net:
Cargill Dow: http://www.cargilldow.com
Ingeo fibers: http://www.ingeofibers.com
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