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Corn research provides alternative to oil dependency

By Jennifer Carrico

When Henry Wallace developed hybrid corn, he was thinking about how it would help farmers. But he likely didn't realize that increasing yields would lead to the need for alternative uses for corn, thus leading to the use of corn as an additive to plastics.

The Iowa Corn Promotion Board has been working with the New Jersey Institute of Technology for several years to develop uses for isosorbide, a bio-based chemical made from corn.

ICPB Director of Research and Development Rod Williamson said isosorbide can be used to replace harmful bisphenol A in epoxy compounds for coatings and can liners, cosmetics for UV protection, replacing harmful phthalates in plastics for making stiff plastics flexible, and in materials where the plastic bottle needs to withstand higher temperature applications--a substitute for petroleum-based products in bio-based chemicals.

"The development of a new use like this for corn will help benefit corn growers in not only Iowa, but all across the country," said Williamson.

ICPB has developed patented technology that they are licensing to industry, and royalties from these patents will be used for continual research.

"The use of isosorbides to increase the melting temperature in plastic bottles is a great benefit for companies bottling juices or other products like spaghetti sauces in plastic bottles," he said. "These products must be put in the bottles at high temperatures, and therefore the plastic has to withstand those high temperatures."

The first patent in a series filed by ICPB and NJIT has been granted in using a material derivative of isosorbide and may be able to replace bisphenol A in a number of consumer products, including the lining of tin cans.

Michael Jaffe, a research professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT, has received this patent for a chemical derived from sugar from corn.

Jaffe has been developing the material in conjunction with the ICPB in an effort to promote and create new, commercially attractive, sustainable chemistries from wider uses of corn.

"Exposure to bisphenol A has been linked to health problems, and we feel confident that this is a safe alternative," said Williamson. "The use of this epoxy coating in food cans will help improve food taste and extend the shelf life."

The chemical bonds that link bisphenol A in polymer structures are not completely stable and the polymer may slowly decay with time, releasing small amounts of it into materials with which it comes into contact, such as food or water. Recent studies have shown small amounts of bisphenol A in the environment having adverse affects on living organisms.

The new invention is an epoxy resin. These are polymers widely used as adhesives, paints and as coatings to protect food in cans. This invention describes a renewable resource epoxy, derived from corn-derived isosorbide.

Jaffe said sugar-based chemicals, such as isosorbide, are generally regarded as a safe, renewable resource that is readily available at competitive pricing, and isosorbide is compatible with many existing commercial chemistries.

Williamson said using the corn-derived isosorbide as a can coating will help prevent a tin taste in the foods and extend the shelf life--a win-win situation for corn farmers and consumers.

"Today petroleum products are used extensively to manufacture plastics, but this research has opened the way for us to substitute corn-derived isosorbide for the petroleum-based feedstock, thus creating many potential opportunities as we move forward," said Jaffe.

Biomaterials like isosorbides are good not only for giving corn farmers another use for their corn but also for the environment, and they will reduce the U.S. consumption of expensive imported petroleum.

Isosorbides can also be used in cosmetics to provide protection from ultraviolet light, which can lead to skin problems and even skin cancer.

Williamson said this addition of the corn-derived product to cosmetics makes the UV spectrum larger. A broader spectrum of light will make the protection last longer, and that is the key to making the product work on the skin.

He said isosorbides can also be used in plasticizers. Plasticizers are added to plastic to add flexibility.

"A garden hose has plasticizers, or another example would be the plastic used in the plastic on a dashboard," he said. "This would also replace petroleum usage as well."

Millions of dollars have been put into this research to help corn farmers and consumers around the world. Research and development continues to develop new uses for corn-derived chemicals to provide a renewable alternative and decrease the need for foreign oil.

Several inventions and patents have come out of this research. ICPB has sublicensed these findings to companies in order to get these products into production. Money earned from the sale of the products will go back into continued research and development of other corn-derived products in order to help find new markets for corn.

"The grower will benefit by creating new uses for corn and new jobs for rural economies," said Williamson. "Isosorbide could consume another 30 to 40 million bushels of corn annually."

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by e-mail at jcarrico@hpj.com.

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