Corn Commentary

Get a Bang out of New Corn Use

Here’s a new use for corn that you can really get a bang out of.

sky-maizeA team of Purdue University students have created a fireworks casing from corn which won the top prize for corn in the school’s annual Student Soybean and Corn Innovation Contests, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Marketing Council.

Taking first place in the Student Corn Innovation Contest is a team that created a fireworks casing that is biodegradable, lighter and less expensive than what is now available. Pictured here are Alexander Parobek and Rachel Clayton, with a fireworks rocket containing the casing, and Polina Navotnaya and Jake Hoeing, with the casing. They received a $20,000 prize for their efforts.

Listen to an interview with Alex from Brownfield Network: Purdue Corn Innovation Winner

The second-place corn team received a $10,000 prize for their creation called Fog-Away, an anti-fog glass and mirror cleansing solution. Members are Anbo Wang of Jingdezhen, China, a junior in agricultural economics; Mitch French of Pittsboro, Ind., a sophomore in biological engineering; Hannah Doren of Northfield, Ill., a junior in food science; and Benjamin Lins of Racine, Wis., a sophomore in chemical engineering.

The winning soybean team produced Nature Loft, a soy protein fiber insulation that can be used in bedding, including sleeping bags; apparel such as hats, gloves and footwear; and other products such as headphones, and the second-place soybean team developed water-soluble Double Eyelid Glue.

Using the KFC – Kernel For Cellulosic

Researchers at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) may have found the kernel’s secret recipe for making cellulosic ethanol, recently announcing the successful production of ethanol from the cellulosic portion of the corn kernel.

“This research is demonstrated proof of the viability of ‘generation 2.0 ethanol,’” NCERC Director John Caupert said. “By utilizing existing technologies readily available in the commercial marketplace, the Center was able to produce a biofuel that builds upon the strengths of conventional corn ethanol and the promise of cellulosic ethanol, thus making bolt-on cellulosic ethanol a reality.”

Caupert added that the potential for cellulosic ethanol has significant immediate and long-term impacts on the biofuels industry generally and the ethanol industry specifically. “Any of the 211 existing ethanol plants in the United States could be retrofitted with existing bolt-on technologies to produce cellulosic ethanol from corn without the need to build new facilities,” Caupert said. “This translates into opportunities for jobs and economic development, particularly in rural areas.”

On average, 8 to 9.5% of the corn kernel is fiber, of which about 5% is in the pericarp. NCERC Assistant Director of Biological Research Sabrina Trupia will be presenting more information about the new development at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop June 4-7 in Minneapolis.

The NCERC at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville is a nationally-recognized research center established through federal and state initiatives, with support from the Illinois and National Corn Growers associations, and dedicated to the development and commercialization of biofuels, specialty chemicals, and other renewable compounds.

Right Time for Corn

It never fails to amaze me how many products can be made from corn.

corn watchTake this watch, for example. It is made by Sprout Watches which offers a line of eco-friendly watches that contain corn resin and bamboo. The watches come in multiple colors, each with a different earth-themed design.

The corn resin is used as a component of the plastic, rather than using petroleum-based products. Sprout promotes the technology on its website and notes that corn resin pellets sequester far less fossil fuel and emits much less greenhouse gases. In addition, the watches are biodegradable and will not leach toxins into the ground. If you want to learn more, they have some neat graphics to demonstrate the process from stalk to watch.

Energy blogger Joanna Schroeder found the corn watch sometime last year and did a post about it recently on AgWired. Nice that the corn watch matches the corn jeans that she found a few years ago.

Add this to the list of products that can be made with corn – like skateboards, doggie waste bags, diapers, toilet paper, carpeting, trash cans, even phones! When we think about becoming less dependent on petroleum, we have to remember that petroleum is used to make plastics – and corn can replace that as well. It’s about time!

Making Both Ethanol and Biodiesel From Corn

Voilà (pronounced vwah-lah, of course) is a French term that literally means “See there!” – used in English to call attention to or express satisfaction over something. As in, “Take an ethanol plant, add corn, and voilà! – you have ethanol and high quality corn oil that can be used for biodiesel production.”

That’s what POET has been doing with patent-pending technology at six different ethanol plants that by the end of this year will have produced enough corn oil to make 12 million gallons of biodiesel.

POET has been selling its branded Voilà™ corn oil into biodiesel and feed markets since January, with POET’s plant in Hudson, South Dakota the first to produce it. The technology was installed in five additional POET plants this year, with more on the way in 2012. Plants that are producing corn oil today are POET Biorefining – Emmetsburg, Gowrie, Jewell and Hanlontown in Iowa. POET Biorefining in Laddonia, Missouri, will be the next to come online this month. The six plants’ combined capacity is about 100 million pounds of corn oil per year.

“Voilà has been a very strong part of POET’s business this year, and I’m excited to see more plants getting this technology,” POET founder and CEO Jeff Broin said. “The more we can diversify into new profitable products, the more successful our plants will be.”

Voilà is just one item on POET’s growing list of products created at its plants. In addition to ethanol, POET produces quality products for animal feed including Dakota Gold distillers dried grains. POET also captures carbon dioxide at seven of its plants for sale to beverage producers, and the company last year unveiled Inviz, a zein product used to replace petroleum-based films and coatings.

“This is pretty exciting. We’re producing energy as a by-product of energy,” Broin said. “It’s incredible to see how many different things we can get from a kernel of corn.

It is incredible, indeed!

Watch a video produced by POET about Voilà below:

CornBoard Sets Speed Record

Skaters are stoked about totally sick boards made from corn stover that are lighter and faster.

Sick is a good thing in skater lingo, by the way.

Last fall, Corn Board Manufacturing Inc. (CBMI) signed an agreement with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop and market CornBoard™ from a corn-based structural composite technology invented by the university’s Dr. Nancy Sottos, Dr. Scott White and Dr. Thomas Mackin. CornBoard™ is a version of wood composite board that uses corn husks and stalks, prepared by mixing the fibrous corn component with a polymer matrix, laminating the mixture, and applying heat and pressure.

Just a few months later, CBMI president Lane Segerstrom set a new world record for skateboard speed, averaging more than 78 mph on a towed Stalk It™ longboard, made from corn stover. Watch the video here:

The skateboards are just the first of the CornBoard products. The company is working on other applications in furniture, flooring, and building materials.

Totally gnarly, dude. (That’s a good thing too!)

Corn Bags Clean Up the Clean Up

For years, environmental activists have reinforced the negative impact that plastic bags, similar to those used in grocery stores, have upon the planet.  These ubiquitous bags can sit in landfills for over 1,000 years.  Now, people who love the planet and their dogs are championing a better option- corn-based biodegradable dog waste bags.

Here, ingenuity and U.S. farming collide to meet demand rooted in an urban problem, cleaning up after Fido.  With the new bags, which programs such as the downtown St. Louis “Scoop the Poop” campaign are using, dog owners can rest assured knowing that they are keeping their city and their planet clean.

Farmers know how important caring for the land is.  So enjoy walking Rex and don’t forget that farmers provide the fuel for innovative ways to improve the way we treat the earth every day.

Corn is More than Food

Something gets lost in the “food versus fuel” fight, and that is that corn is an amazingly versatile crop with endless possibilities for bio-friendly products. Using it for food or feed alone is just limiting its enormous potential.

Teams of Purdue University students recently came up with a few more potential uses for corn. The winners of this year’s Corn Innovation Contest, sponsored by the the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, developed a liquid bandage made out of a by-product from corn ethanol production called zein. The Natural Renewal Liquid Bandage – created by students Andrew Furrow of Greenwood , Ann Alvar of Zionsville, Robert Agee of Rushville and Yang Zhou of West Lafayette (not pictured) – takes advantage of the properties of zein, which is a transparent, edible, water insoluble and biodegradable polymer that acts as a physical defense for wounds and binds to the skin’s surface. The team used ethyl alcohol made from corn to act as an antiseptic until the solvent evaporates. They believe that the product also will act as a skin scaffold that will reduce scarring in minor wounds. For their innovative thinking, the team members are sharing a cash award of $20,000.

Second place and $10,000 in the competition this year went to Jonathon Welte of Elberfeld, Audrey Wessel of St. Anthony and Spencer Dieg of Evansville for creating drop ceiling tiles made from corn stover. The team worked to create tiles that were more environmentally friendly compared with regular tiles made from such materials as wood, plastic and fiberglass and other materials.

The competition also includes new products for soybeans and the winners this year developed Dentural, an all-natural adhesive for full dentures. The product is in the form of a paste consisting of soy products that form a vacuum to keep dentures in place. It is an alternative to synthetic chemicals used in other products.

“The versatility of corn and soybeans is limitless, and these competitions serve as a showcase not only for the potential new uses of crops grown here in Indiana but also for the students who put their time, effort and talent into their projects,” said Jane Ade Stevens, executive director for both the corn and soybean checkoff organizations. “Indiana corn and soybean farmers are committed to working with Purdue to continue to build excitement around the new uses competitions, which ultimately helps build demand for corn and soybeans,” Stevens said.

(Purdue Agricultural Communication Photos/Tom Campbell)

Corn-Based Kitty Litter to Save the Planet?

 A new kitty litter made from corn may not save the planet but it does present an educational opportunity. Corn is a versatile product used in thousands of products every day and the list keeps growing. The evolution from livestock feed to human food, to a growing list of industrial uses (ala corn kitty litter) is a natural one based on the staggering productivity of America’s family farmers.

 So much focus is placed on the growing use of corn by the ethanol industry that I think we forget all the other products made from corn and how and why this expansive list of corn uses started. Today, nearly every state growing corn also sports a “checkoff program.” These farmer supported efforts take a small amount – from fractions of a cent to as much as a penny per bushel – from each bushel of corn sold to pay for promoting corn products, to increase exports markets and to research and develop new uses for corn.

 Checkoffs changed the way people think. Corn suddenly became a chemical feedstock or stored solar energy just waiting to be released. Scientists and business entrepreneurs who thought the corn world revolved around sweet corn began to see unlimited potential for commercial corn.

 As a result corn consumption for industrial or non-food uses has been outpacing the growth in food and feed uses for a long time. So it seems kind of silly that we continue to wring our hands over salacious debates over whether we should be using corn for things like fuel (ethanol) when it could be used for food and feed. This debate is ancient history and the market won. The advanced production power of U.S. agriculture today ensures a growing supply of corn that will continue to satisfy demand for domestic use and exports.

 Today, there are more than 4,200 different uses for corn products ranging from toothpaste to paint. And just when you think you have heard of it all along comes the World’s Best Cat Litter™ is produced by GPC Pet Products in Muscatine, Iowa.

 Developers say it is the only litter with a patented formula that harnesses the microporous power of whole-kernel corn to control odor better, absorb moisture faster, clump tighter, and last longer than all other litters—while providing a 100% renewable, 100% biodegradable cat litter that is pet, people, and planet safe.

 And apparently it is safe for human consumption too, as one of the videos featured on the web site shows a gentleman eating the product to prove it is safe. Now that is grassroots marketing of a different kind.

 Understanding why farmers started a self-administered checkoff programs is a little easier to grasp. Decades of $2 a bushel corn was a pretty good motivator. Corn grower’s productivity was crushing the prospects for profitability for the nation’s farmers as markets for livestock feed and domestic food uses matured.

 Much like the sun coming up in the morning it is in farmer’s nature to try to produce as much corn as they can. Getting more bushels per acre has traditionally been the key to survival, so rather than throw in the towel they decided to be pro-active and build uses and markets. And the effort has paid off. Corn use continues to grow and so does farmers productivity. Seven of the largest corn crops in history have been grown in the last 7 years and without expanding acreage.

 A 17 billion bushel crop is no longer a pipedream, but a looming reality so bring on the new uses.

Using DDGs To Enhance Plastics

Chad UlvenWhen it comes to creating new uses for corn, Chad Ulven, North Dakota State University, is one of the researchers leading the way. During the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference he did a presentation titled, “Development of DDGs as Reinforcement in Polymers.” So what does that mean? To find out I interviewed him.

He’s looking at a variety of different agricultural by-products like DDGs to make them into plastics. He calls them bio-composites. Although there would be many types of products these could be used for he’s most interested in using them for farm implements like tractor shrouds or sprayer booms. He says the fibers he creates can add additional stiffness for example. He’s got a foundation of research completed after 5 years but now he’s trying to bring some of his creations to market. To do that he’s talking with several companies.

You can download (mp3) and listen to my interview with Chad here: