–by Doug Root, Ph.D., Senior Scientist of  Biomass & Renewable Products Technologies

Fifty years ago many of the toys and presents under the Christmas tree were made of wood, cotton, wool and other familiar materials. Stacking blocks, baseballs, small log houses, rag dolls, knitted sweaters, and stuffed animals were largely composed of materials grown or produced on the land, often referred to as biobased materials. Just a few years later, we saw a rapid change to toys and other products made from modern plastics using petroleum and minerals extracted from under the land.

Today, the growing excitement is around the second generation of biobased materials produced by modern chemistry and using agricultural and forestry products. The modern vision is for biobased materials that are less expensive, better performing, and more durable than the petroleum-based materials that currently dominate the marketplace. There are several successful modern biobased materials including rayon and polylactic acid. Each of these has found profitable uses in today’s marketplace, and both have significant Minnesota connections.

Rayon has been around in a useful form for more than 100 years. The viscose process that is used to make rayon from wood pulp has caused significant environmental concerns, and the alternative processes have been even greater sources of concern. Most of the world’s rayon is produced in Southern and Southeastern Asia. However, wood pulp for the viscose process is now grown and processed in Cloquet, Minn., where more than 1,000 tons per day comes from the Sappi Fine Paper plant.

Polylactic acid (PLA) has more modern origins. In the 1980s and 90s, Cargill established a pilot plant in Savage, Minn., for PLA, which is created by converting corn starch into a useful polymer; the plant produced 500 metric tons of PLA per year while the applications and markets for this new material were developed. Full-scale production moved to a much larger facility in Nebraska in 2002, and additional plants are expected to come on line in Asia in the
coming years.

AURI has found many entrepreneurs creating new biobased materials in our state. Most of the concepts have solid research foundations and are facing the difficult task of bringing new materials into commercial manufacturing and consumer markets. Similar efforts to bring new materials from new “green” chemistry are underway around the world.

Biobased products are one of four areas of focus for AURI, where a small team meets regularly to look forward to the next generation of biobased materials and to identify opportunities to assist those entrepreneurs working to develop these materials in Minnesota.

We still use that first generation of biobased materials—wood, wool, cotton, linen, and many other products of agriculture. And the plastics and petroleum-based chemicals that we currently use will not disappear, but, gradually, we will find more opportunities to create fabrics, paints, solid goods and more from agricultural materials. AURI has the “best seat in the house” to recognize the new materials at the earliest opportunity and to assist in bringing the “greenest,” least costly and most functional materials into the products we use every day.