"We have believed for years that making biodegradable plastics could create a huge demand for corn," said Gary Marshall, chief executive officer of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council (MCMC).
"In fact, MCMC was among the first to invest corn grower checkoff dollars in biodegradable research," he said.
Research is about to become reality. Long-term investments by corn growers in research and product development are about to pay off big time.
In April, Cargill Dow Polymers, LLC, broke ground on a $300 million polymers plant at Blair, in southeastern Nebraska. The company is a joint venture formed by Cargill, Inc., and Dow Chemicals and plans to have the plant on stream early in 2002. The new plant will utilize some 14 million bushels of corn per year, to produce 140,000 tons of polylactic acid, used in plastics and textiles.
Until the new plant is on line, Cargill Dow Polymers will produce about 8,000 tons of polylactic acid resins per year from its plant at Savage, MN.
"The first result of this venture is a family of fibers and packaging polymers made entirely from corn," said a Cargill spokesman. "Made with our patented NatureWorks technology, the product is the only commercially viable plastic to combine performance, cost competitiveness and outstanding environmental benefits."
In the mid-1980s, Gene Iannotti, a food science engineer, at the University of Missouri, with funding largely from corn growers, took the lead in such research. An early application resulted in biodegradable garbage bags, produced from a combination of corn starch and petroleum-derived plastics.
"At each step in the process, from lactic acid to long-chain polymers, there are a lot of options; a lot of potential products," said Iannotti. "Cargill has an excellent team of polymer scientists; they will undoubtedly pursue a lot of different products, including many that interest medical science."
Perhaps of equal importance, many products made from polylactic acid break down to substances readily degraded by bacteria, Iannotti added. Plastic bags from relatively short-chain polymers would degrade in exposure to weather and sunlight, whereas bags produced from petroleum-based plastic film appear to have a 100-year half-life.
Corn-source polymers also can be made into textiles. In fact, PLA fabrics are gaining popularity in Japan, where one company has been experimenting with the technology for years, said Marshall.
"Last year, Japan bought 591 million bushels of corn," he added. "Estimates are that polylactic acids will grow the Japanese market by 275 million bushels. If that comes to pass, it could raise U.S. corn prices by 10 to 20 cents per bushel."
When on-line, the Cargill Dow Polymer plant will generate a daily demand for 40,000 bushels of corn. That is a market boost for growers in the four-state region (Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas).
"We probably would not haul much corn there," said Brooks Hurst, a corn-soybean farmer, at Tarkio, MO. "But the Blair plant will improve our basis in this area."
In the current grain market, anything that results in disappearance of corn from the huge supplies on hand should help prices everywhere. At the same time, prices for petroleum (the major feedstock for conventional plastics) prices are at 10-year highs, which should bolster demand for plastics made from renewable sources.
"We are excited that the corn checkoff has done exactly what it was created to do: fund research to create new products and new markets for our corn," said Mashall. "Essentially, anything produced from petroleum also can be produced from plants. The key is feasibility, and that is what grower-funded research is designed to help prove."
To the extent that it is working, Marshall points to a record high demand for corn--put at 9.525 billion bushels for 1999.
"If these projections hold true, we will have used more U.S. corn in 1999 for feed, food, fuel and industrial applications than ever before," he added. "Ventures, such as the Cargill Dow Polymers plant, will increase the corn usage in years ahead."