An agave plant might conjure images of happy hour with margaritas or a cup of tea sweetened by agave nectar.

Researchers at 3M had something different in mind.

Five years ago, 3M scientist Myhanh Truong was searching for an environmentally sustainable material that would lead to the right kitchen scouring agent. The fibrous strands of the spiky agave leaf might be just what she needed.

3M allows many of its employees to use 15 percent of their work time to research any product they like. Truong became intrigued with the idea of a “green” scrubby pad.

“Sustainability is about using materials to their fullest,” said Truong, product development specialist for 3M’s Home Care division. “Sometimes that means unlocking their hidden potentials.”

So Truong and manufacturing engineer Ryan Petersen traveled to Mexico to see agave fields up close. Agave leaves usually are just thrown away or burned because they aren’t the part of the plant that is used to produce tequila.

They eventually found a company that could process the leaves into clean, nonflammable fibers for use in manufacturing.

Seeking production solutions

For centuries, small and homespun Mexican businesses have used the agave leaf to make cloth, mats and handbags, as well as saddlebags for horses.

Production remained small and didn’t require large manufacturing plants. 3M intended to change that, but had a lot to learn.

First, it had to find a fiber processor in Mexico that could overcome problems inherent in the agave leaf. Agave fibers are sticky. When dry, they’re dusty and flammable.

And agave fibers are “not so friendly” when combined with the gluelike polyester fibers needed to hold together a scrubby pad, Truong said.

To find a solution, she met with scientists and farmers in Mexico. She invited fiber experts from India to her Maplewood lab. She even consulted fruit-fiber experts in Brazil, coconut-fiber experts in India and a nonwoven fabric team in France.

The 3M team then hired an agave leaf processor just north of Mexico City and tweaked several “nonwoven” processing machines in the United States so they could mass produce thick sheets of agave fabric.

The effort, which cost hundreds of thousands to develop, led to 3M’s first agave product: the “Scotch-Brite Greener Clean” line.

“We came out with a small line of the product. We wanted to test the product. We didn’t know how big it might be,” Truong said.

Connecting with a younger consumer

3M launched its nonscratch agave scouring pad in Target stores in 2009. It later added a scrubber- sponge combination. Eventually, it was sold at Wal-Mart and is now in or entering grocery and dollar stores nationwide.

3M recently introduced an agave dish-scrubbing wand. And next year, it will roll out a “heavy duty” agave scouring solution that can scratch hard, baked-on foods off pots and pans.

Customer focus groups and new marketing plans are in the works, said Scotch-Brite marketing manager Angie Olson. “It’s nationwide now.”

Gayle Schueller, 3M vice president of global sustainability, declined to disclose sales, but said growth is “significant.”

The agave line “started as a bit of a lab curiously,” Schueller said. “But it ended up taking off much more quickly than we realized.”

Meanwhile, 3M marketers noticed that younger shoppers were not buying Scotch-Brite sponges and scouring products — until the agave line hit the shelves.

“This has been a business that has been trying to find ways to connect with a younger generation of consumers and those who have not connected to our scouring products. So this was a surprise,” Schueller said. “We thought it might become a niche for [people] very interested in sustainability. What we found was more than that.”

Today, 50 percent of 3M’s agave product buyers are new to Scotch-Brite.

‘Cross-tapping’ technologies

“The key is if it is demonstrably greener than the existing product and if it’s better,” said Dave Brennan, University of St. Thomas marketing professor and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence. “If it is going to do exactly the same thing, that is OK, but it doesn’t move you very far down the road.”

For that, 3M will tap into its researchers and marketers toiling away in other divisions of the company. “3M is very well-known for cross-tapping its technologies,” Brennan said.

Already, 3M’s agave project has tapped into other 3M businesses across continents.

The company now has a coconut-fiber project underway at its production plant in India. A Brazilian team is using leaf fibers from an indigenous fruit plant to make kitchen goods.

“More products are to come,” Schueller said.