How AURI works: An eye on biofutures

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series exploring AURI’s structure and services. Previous segments covered AURI’s mission, programs, and business and technical services. We now explore AURI’s forward-looking efforts to identify opportunities in value-added agriculture.

Since World War II, cheap petroleum has fueled our economy. Not only does oil run our transportation system, it is in plastics, fabrics, lubricants, flooring, even cosmetics.

But change is coming, says Keith Sannes, AURI deputy director in Crookston. “People are saying, we want to have these things derived from renewable resources. Petroleum is known to be a limited resource and harmful to the environment.”

Replacing petroleum with ag-based products is a major AURI focus for the years to come, Sannes says. Besides responding to value-added product ventures, the Institute is looking at long-term opportunities spurred by global economic, environmental and political change.

Market USA

“Since September 11, there has been a renewed (American) interest in self-reliance and economic security,” says Lisa Gjersvik, AURI project director in Waseca. “We want to be in control of our own destiny. I think there is opportunity there.”

Gjersvik is completing a review of government studies, work funded by commodity group checkoff dollars, and research conducted by national laboratories. So far, “the three top opportunities emerging in agriculture appear to be bioenergy, bio-based products and medicinal foods or nutraceuticals.”

AURI is already doing substantial work in the bioenergy area. For example, AURI’s fats and oils laboratory in Marshall is a leader in biodiesel research, and the coproducts lab in Waseca is analyzing and pelletizing ag residues for fuel (see story, page 16). AURI has also delved into nutraceutical development, such as fractionating soy lecithins to make high-value supplements.

On the national level, Gjersvik says, significant biofuels research is being conducted at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., as well as at federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy and its Office of Industrial Technology, and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “AURI tries to keep abreast of these new technologies for possible opportunities for Minnesota,” Gjersvik says.

But can ag products compete with petro-products in the marketplace? “Sure,” Sannes says. “That will be taken care of in the future — as petroleum becomes more scarce, prices will go up and ag materials will be competitive.

“We in this country and the world have spent billions of research dollars and huge amounts of people’s time working on petroleum products; we haven’t yet done that with ag materials.”

Developing ag-based substitutes “will happen over decades of time,” Sannes concedes. “It will take a lot of hard work and money.” But by the time the economics catch up, “we will have a lot of the work done.”

Whatever happened to starch?

Bioproducts have not received much notice in the past decade. Inventions such as starch plastic bags received plenty of attention in the mid-1980s, but never caught on in the marketplace.

Now that’s turning around, Sannes says. “I see a rekindled interest in using ag materials to replace plastic fibers in building materials, polyesters, anything like that,” says Sannes, who worked on starch polymers during his organic chemistry studies at the University of Iowa, post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, and later at General Electric’s research lab in Schenactady, N.Y.

“Most chemicals (polymerized into plastic) currently made from petroleum can also be made from starch. We just don’t have all the routes down yet, and we haven’t had the research money.”

In 1989, soon after joining AURI, Sannes formed a coalition to work on corn-starch polymers with researchers from Mankato State University and the Argonne Laboratory near Chicago, Ill.

Several entrepreneurial companies have used the technology to make starch-based plastic. The first and most successful has been a Cargill-Dow partnership that is making renewable products at a Nebraska plant (see “Elsewhere in ag innovation,” page 13).

One entrepreneurial company assisted by AURI has invented a cheaper method of making polymers. Rather than first turning starch into a chemical, which requires an expensive purification process, the company takes ag residue — chopped-up stalks and stems — and adds chemicals that “chew up small pieces so it becomes liquid,” Sannes says. “Then they add a chemical to bring the solids out of the solution in the form you want — whether it’s a 2 by 4 or gas cap or carburetor.”

This is “not pie in the sky,” Sannes says. “As we get into this, it will be an ongoing evolution — we will get better at making starch into just about anything.”

Ag revolution, second wave

The evolution started, but was halted, over a century ago. Before the Civil War, ethanol was a leading industrial solvent and was later used to make rubber for World War II military crafts. In 1941, Henry Ford built a car of soybean and vegetable plastics and filled the tank with corn ethanol. The tires were made from goldenrod grown by Thomas Edison. After World War II, however, commodities found better markets in exports and oil prices plunged, setting the stage for an economy driven by fossil fuels.

Recent initiatives could put us back on the route to a renewable-resource economy, Gjersvik says. In the late 1990s, representatives of the agricultural, forestry and chemical industries, including AURI’s Max Norris, wrote a visionary plan initiated by the National Corn Growers Association: “Plant/crop-based Renewable Resources 2020.” It calls for replacing 10 percent of fossil fuel-based materials with plant-based materials by 2020 and increasing that ratio to 50 percent by 2050.

Two federal actions — President Clinton’s 1999 Executive Order 13134, “Developing and Promoting Biobased Products and Bionergy,” and the Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000 — have accelerated federal research and development in these areas.

“It’s AURI’s intention to be a leader in this field,” Gjersvik says. “Wherever possible, we want the processing to be done in this state, preferably by producer groups.” But ultimately those taking advantage of this new economy “will be those willing to step up to the plate.”