(Posted Mon. Jun 13th, 2016)
Corn offers a variety of opportunities for biochemical engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, consumers and of course, farmers. The 10th biennial Corn Utilization and Technology Conference last week was a healthy reminder for attendees that yes, corn is an optimal resource for several different products and the researchers, like those at CUTC, are determining which processes are most efficient.
A common focus of the conference was the shift from biofuels, like ethanol, to bio-based chemicals. Dr. Ray Chrisman of Purdue University recognizes the opportunity corn starch allows for a shift from fuel to using renewable resources. “We need to grow a technical base for making renewables,” says Chrisman. He noted that while the ideas for corn starch are being researched and understood, it takes five to ten years for a new product to be accepted in the market place.
Currently, a range of renewable chemicals are being developed, mostly related to glucose. Scientists are struggling to find new approaches to separate chemicals in their work, to ensure the most effective processing technique. Converting renewables to current products is more difficult than converting oil-based raw materials, however, the science is there and it’s just a matter of time until it is better understood.
Chrisman says that corn starch is the most ideal starting material for this project. It is low cost, clean, available in large volumes, easily converted to glucose and is an “insurance policy” against global crop failures. The market ethylene glycol, a valuable molecule made from glucose found in corn starch, is growing at over 6 percent every year.
Dr. Brent Shanks of SusTerea, a bio-renewable focus company, pleas with researchers at the end of his session. “We need to help the industry get to where it needs to be, please let the agencies like the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture know this.” In keeping an eye to the future, starch needs to be a component used in current bio-chemical processing while new processes are being tested and better technology is being built to get to the best possible outcome. “Don’t wait for Washington,” says Shanks, “go straight to the agencies with your pleas to get us to where we need to be.”
The science is being done, the researchers are sharing valuable insight and we’re getting closer to utilizing corn in a variety of ways. And that is what CUTC is all about.