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Innovation May Create New Uses for Corn and Soybeans

Known best for revolutionizing mass production, Henry Ford’s innovation wasn’t limited to improving the assembly line or designing a motorcar for the masses. The farm kid and inventor also sought out opportunities for the automobile and agriculture industries to work together. 

To fuel this endeavor, Ford opened the Soybean Experimental Laboratory in the 1930s, which led to soy-based oils used in paints and soybean meal ground into plastic parts for Ford Motor Company vehicles. Just like his vision for horseless carriages in the late 1890s, Ford’s vision for soybeans was ahead of its time.

Today, there is a renewed initiative to find creative new markets and industrial uses for soybeans as well as corn. Spurred by bumper crops and funded, in part, by checkoff programs, research is under way to develop ways for these crops to replace oil as a raw material and help chew through large supplies.

The use cases vary widely from plastic bottles to tires to fragrances. One, in particular, would make Ford proud. Ford Motor Company now uses soybean-based foam in the seat cushions of all of its vehicles.

Checkoff Dollars at Work

Chris Novak
To fulfill the mission of increasing profit opportunities for farmers, both the United Soybean Board (USB) and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) have initiatives to find and support the growth of new markets for their respective commodities. 

“Since the 2012 drought, we started having one record crop after another, to the point where we have relatively high stocks to use,” says Chris Novak, former CEO of the NCGA. “The focus for our five-year strategic plan – started in 2015 – is how to build demand for the additional corn that our farmers are going to produce.”

For the NCGA, this goal aggressively states: “Partnering with industry, establish at least three new uses, each utilizing 25 million bushels by 2020.” The USB’s version is divided into meal and oil with a 2.9-million-bushel annual target for meal and 2.2 billion pounds per year for oil. 

The checkoff organizations have taken two different approaches to achieve these goals. The NCGA launched an open innovation contest to solicit ideas; the USB seeks out partners to fund specific projects.

Consider Corn Challenge

In 2017, NCGA announced its first Consider Corn Challenge – an open innovation contest where scientists and entrepreneurs submitted proposals for new uses of field corn as a feedstock. The contest required that the proposals have a clear path to reach commercial scale and to enable a new market – not detract from an existing one. 

Bruce Peterson
Bruce Peterson
“This challenge is geared to inspire new concepts, approaches, and technologies that will help drive innovation and corn’s value,” says Bruce Peterson, chairman of NCGA’s Feed Food and Industrial Action Team.

Six winners were announced in early 2018. Each received a $25,000 cash prize along with the option of additional funding or support from NCGA. The focus for the inaugural challenge was on the conversion of corn into biorenewable chemicals.

“The renewables industry is already an important driver for the U.S. economy, generating billions of dollars in revenue, but the additional potential in the emerging bioeconomy remains largely untapped,” says Peterson. The U.S. biobased products industry creates 4.2 million jobs and generates $393 billion to the economy, according to a USDA study with data from 2014. 

Within this industry, renewable-based plastics – or bioplastics – is an area with brimming potential given the size of the global plastics market as well as the drive to switch to biobased products. The global plastics market is estimated to be worth more than $650 billion by 2020, with bioplastics growing by 20% over the next five years, according to Grand View Research and European Bioplastics, respectively. 

Nathan Danielson
“Plastics is where the money is,” says Nathan Danielson, a consultant for the NCGA who works at BioCognito. “If you consider a scenario in which every pound of plastic takes 2 pounds of starch to make, that would use about 40 billion bushels of corn to replace all polymers in plastics for the world. That’s 100% replacement, which isn’t possible or realistic, but that’s the entire potential for that market.” In this scenario, only starch is used for plastic, and a high-protein, high-energy feed can be made from the other components of corn.

It comes as no surprise that four out of the six winners included solutions for corn-based plastics. For example, Illinois-based Annikki is developing a bioadvantaged molecule – furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) – to replace a petroleum-derived terephthalic acid used in plastics. Used in plastic soda bottles – most likely the first market application – FDCA will make bottles lighter, extend the shelf life of carbonated beverages, and use less energy in the manufacturing process. The market potential for FDCA, as a replacement of terephthalic acid, is estimated near $100 billion, according to Grand View Research.

The contest entry with the second-largest potential market came from Vertimass. Based in California, Vertimass is working to convert ethanol into aromatics used in solvents, nylons, fuels, and more. This process is being developed as a bolt-on to ethanol plants and has the potential to open up a new and large market for ethanol – worth more than $90 billion annually, according to NCGA.

Other entries included another solution for soda bottles as well as polyesters, pipes, tanks, food containers, molded automotive parts, acrylic glass, cosmetics, batteries, flavors, and fragrances. 

The Next Ethanol?

Will any of these uses have the potential to be the next ethanol?

Probably not, says Novak. “There may not be another 5-billion-bushel corn market out there from any single use,” he says. Instead, he’s looking for small wins – the same way the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015. “They did it by hitting singles and doubles, not necessarily with home runs. That’s the heart of the Consider Corn Challenge.”

Jim Bauman
While the scale may not be the same, there are still lessons to be learned from ethanol, says Jim Bauman, director of market development at NCGA. “Ethanol is a great case study of launching a whole new industry from scratch,” he says. U.S. corn used for ethanol grew from less than 1% in 1980 to 38% today. 

“There were some pitfalls and things to look out for, but if you think about the rapid scale from the early 2000s to where we are today, it’s a huge win,” says Bauman. “We can use that model of agriculture and farmers investing in new technology and take it forward to ultimately benefit individual farms and operations.”

NCGA plans to launch a second Consider Corn Challenge in 2019.

Maintaining Momentum

The USB has considered replicating the corn challenge for soybeans but doesn’t have immediate plans to launch its own open innovation contest. Instead, the USB builds long-term relationships and works with companies to fund research on new industrial uses for soybeans. 

A prime example is USB’s partnership with Goodyear. 

Bob Woloszynek
“In 2011, we heard what other companies were doing in collaboration with USB,” says Bob Woloszynek, chief engineer in Goodyear’s Global Materials Science organization. “That’s when we reached out and asked what it did and how it could support our research. The USB has generously supported our research activities ever since.”

At the time, Goodyear was evaluating soybean oil as a potential compound ingredient to use in tires. “The support of USB kept the momentum going with research until we had a breakthrough and the right application where we could leverage the benefits,” says Woloszynek, explaining that material development projects like this can get dropped if things don’t work from a technical standpoint or if there’s no immediate need for that particular technology.

From a technical standpoint, soybean oil is compatible with rubbers Goodyear uses in tire applications, and it mixes more easily in the compounds, which reduces energy consumption to produce tires. From the performance side, the use of soybean oil keeps rubber compounds pliable at low temperatures, providing traction in wet and winter conditions. This was ideal for Goodyear’s Assurance WeatherReady tires for passenger vehicles introduced last year.

“The Assurance WeatherReady has a three-peak mountain snowflake stamping, which is a winter traction certification that isn’t common on all-season tires. That’s what makes this a unique product,” says Woloszynek. “It’s a premium product, and we leveraged our soybean oil technology to meet aggressive performance objectives.”

It took six years from Goodyear’s first meeting with the USB until the first tire line with soybean oil hit the market, which is slightly quicker than the average time line.

“From the time we first make contact with a company and spark an idea to the point where there is an actual business or line of tires, is about eight years,” says Keith Cockerline, USB director of industrial uses. “What we try to do is provide incentive and energy to get these projects over the hump.”

For Goodyear, this meant keeping the research going until the right use case – like the Assurance WeatherReady tires – was found. Now that the technology and its capabilities are known, Goodyear can use soybean oil for additional applications, such as the Eagle Enforcer All Weather tires for police pursuit vehicles scheduled to launch in late 2018. 

It’s too early to tell what other applications soybean oil may be a good fit for – such as tractor tires – but Woloszynek says that as Goodyear starts to incorporate it more, the volume of soybeans used will grow. For the Assurance WeatherReady tires, Goodyear estimated using 40,000 to 60,000 bushels of soybeans per year. 

Sustainability Advantage

With performance as the top priority, sustainability is often another reason companies turn to corn- and soybean-based products. 

“When you look at oil feedstocks, petroleum is the big one. If a company wants a sustainability claim and there is petroleum or soybeans available as a feedstock, the company will go with soy,” says Cockerline. “We just got back from a trip with IKEA. One of its top goals is to be sustainable. By 2030, it wants to get rid of all petroleum-based adhesives in its products. When you look at sustainable, natural adhesives, soy rises to the top of the list.”

To back up these claims, the USB conducted a life cycle impact assessment comparing soy-based feedstocks with petroleum-based counterparts. The study showed soy-based feedstocks reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that the soy feedstocks deplete fossil fuels at lower rates.

This is one advantage touted by Ford Motor Company. The switch to soybean-based foam in seat cushions a decade ago has cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 228 million pounds. That stat – combined with the .5 trillion soybeans used by Ford – would surely please the company’s founder.

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