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Breakthroughs Magazine

Technology Commercialization

Biomass—a step closer to market

PNNL scientists have developed process technologies for cost-effectively converting sugars from corn into chemicals. These chemicals are used in industrial and consumer products, including plastics, paints, non-toxic solvents, textile fibers, antifreeze, toothpaste and foods.

The Iowa Corn Promotion Board, ICPB, recently signed its first commercial license with Battelle for technology to produce a new plastic additive made from corn that may help reduce petroleum demand in the United States as well as offer a variety of commercial advantages. Battelle operates the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where the process to make the additive was developed.

The compound, isosorbide, can be used to improve the properties of plastic materials such as bottles, making them more rigid and stronger than regular plastic bottles. Estimates indicate that isosorbide is cost-competitive with the petroleum-based building blocks currently used to make plastics.

With concern for the nation's dependence on foreign oil mounting, renewable energy sources such as biomass are becoming more important. "The use of renewable corn-derived isosorbide will reduce the amount of petroleum necessary to make plastics," said Todd Werpy, who manages PNNL's bioproducts program. "Ultimately, it has the potential to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

Isosorbide also has the potential to benefit growers by creating a new market for their crops and the plastics industry by offering more diverse applications.

Isosorbide also will benefit the plastics industry. "Isosorbide creates a plastic with improved features compared to plastics made from petrochemicals," said John Holladay, who leads isosorbide research at PNNL. "For example, adding isosorbide increases melt temperatures so that the plastic can be used for hot-fill applications."

The ICPB license is the first step in bringing isosorbide to the market. ICPB is now seeking a company to produce isosorbide. "There is great commercial interest in isosorbide, but the compound just hasn't been available," said Eric Lund, PNNL commercialization manager. "ICPB is a major force in the corn industry, and its pursuit of a manufacturer will help open up a range of potential uses for isosorbide."

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