Cargill Inc. is investing in a process that allows corn to replace fossil fuels as the underlying element of a polymer used to waterproof paper cups and put the stretch in athleisure clothing.
That shiny coating and stretchy fabric are based on polymers from a molecule called 1,4-Butanediol, or BDO.
Cargill and Germany-based chemicals company Helm announced last week a joint venture, called Qore, that is building a $300 million facility in Eddyville, Iowa, to produce this key polymer ingredient from corn sugars rather than from petroleum.
These sugars are converted to BDO using a fermentation process developed by San Diego-based Genomatica, which is licensing the technology to Cargill. The joint venture will soon break ground on only the second commercial-scale plant in the world using this technology, with Genomatica licensing the other one to Novamont in Bottrighe, Italy.
As consumers grow wary of the environmental damage of those comfortable yoga pants, disposable diapers and smartphone cases, household brands are asking their suppliers for alternatives.
"Both consumers and customers in those market areas are looking for sustainable, renewable solutions," said Jill Zullo, Cargill's vice president of biointermediates and bioindustrial.
Cargill created the bioindustrial segment three years ago with the goal of finding new uses and new markets for products derived from agricultural goods.
"We know that we can take renewable resources — whether it's corn, wheat, soy — and apply conversion technologies and end up in a wide variety of end products," Zullo said. For instance, ethanol is made through fermentation of sugars.
Many of Cargill's customers are food companies seeking to reduce plastic packaging. Many of Helm's customers are asking for a plant-based BDO for consumer electronics, automotive interiors and more.
"So we started looking at what technologies are available and/or where we should invest and develop ourselves," Zullo said. "We knew Genomatica quite well and knew their technology was at a place that we could help scale it up quickly."
The company says its product will save up to 93% of greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional BDO.
Marc Hillmyer, a professor, chemist and director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation Center based at the University of Minnesota, said this approach is being embraced by many in his field as they try to move toward a more sustainable future.
"The play here is really to go from nonrenewable petroleum-based feedstocks and change that to an annual renewable, sustainable feedstocks — and that is plants, in this case," Hillmyer said after reviewing Cargill's announcement.
He said the molecule will be no different in terms of its applications, but can be prepared with what appears to be "a much smaller greenhouse gas footprint than the current petroleum-based methods."
Eventually, Hillmyer said the industry may request an independent, peer-reviewed life cycle analysis that takes into consideration the full environmental impact of producing this plant-based BDO, including water and energy use and waste created.
"With crops, there is fertilizer use, there's land use, but this is moving in the right direction. Annual renewable resources with lower environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions," Hillmyer said.
Business as usual, with nonrenewable resources and plastics pollution, is not sustainable in the long run, he said, adding, "It is incumbent on us to work on this now."
Cargill is providing the renewable feedstock (corn) and manufacturing expertise at the site where the company already produces other corn-based products. Helm will manage the customer relationships, marketing and sales of the bio-based BDO.
The $300 million financial investment was not divided equally between the two companies, with Cargill saying only that it is the larger stakeholder.
The company breaks ground on the new building — which will join Cargill's 9-million-square-foot biotechnology campus in Iowa that sits on 1,500 acres — later this summer.
Cargill and Helm expect to start churning out this product, which they've named QIRA, in 2024. They initially expect to produce and distribute at least 65,000 metric tons per year.