Agricultural products manufacturer and commodities trader Cargill Inc. is sponsoring research aimed at developing soy-based polyols used in the production of polyurethanes.
The research is aimed at replacing petroleum-based polyols, Cargill said.
Cargill's partner in the project is the Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan., which is affiliated with Pittsburg State's College of Technology Plastics. The KPRC has about 10 scientists devoted to the effort, said the center's director, Phil Halstead. Cargill did not disclose the size of its research team or the amount it will invest in the project.
The research is necessary because industry needs to find renewable alternatives to petroleum, said Jim Stoppert, senior director of Industrial Bioproducts Development for Minneapolis-based Cargill.
``It's a foregone conclusion that eventually the oil supply is going to run out. We need to create products that don't depend on fossil fuels,'' he said. ``We believe that soy-based polyols have the potential to serve many, if not most, of the functions of their petroleum-based counterparts over time.''
Vegetable-based alternatives to petroleum also would release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and free industry from the unstable politics of major oil-producing regions, Stoppert said.
Both Cargill and the KPRC have a track record of research and development into vegetable-based replacements for petroleum products.
Largely a global food/feed producer and commodities trader, Cargill recently began developing agriculturally based industrial goods.
Some of the company's bio-based alternatives to petroleum are a biodegradable hydraulic fluid made with canola oil and a soy-based transformer fluid for utility companies, Stoppert said. The company announced an initiative in early 2003 to accelerate its development of specialty chemicals, polymers and other industrial products made from renewable agricultural sources.
The KPRC has spent 10 years conducting research into bio-based alternatives to petroleum sponsored by organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Soybean Commission, Halstead said.
With a critical mass of research in place, the time is ripe for development of commercially targeted soy-based polyols, according to Halstead.
``The technology has advanced to the point where it is possible to have economically competitive bio-based products,'' he said.
Long-term projections see massive replacement of petroleum-based chemicals with vegetable-based alternatives, Halstead said. ``This is a worldwide megatrend. It is thought that two-thirds of the $1.5 trillion chemical industry could someday be displaced by bio-based feedstocks.''
Cargill and the KPRC are concentrating on soy-based products because they appear to be the most commercially viable for polyol production, he said.
The first PU products developed through the joint research project probably will be PU foams, but the research will apply to all major market sectors for PU, including plastics, inks and coatings, adhesives, films, sealants and other products, Stoppert said. The most likely candidates for replacement in the chemical industry will be propylene oxides.
Since its inception in February, the research program into soy-based polyols has been progressing very rapidly, Halstead said. Although he could not give a firm estimate for when the program might produce its first commercial products, they could appear in the near future.
``There are a lot of hurdles to be crossed in terms of scale-up of production, displacement of petroleum-based products, acceptance of new products, etc.,'' he said. ``But obviously, there is a very large market out there.''
Both Halstead and Stoppert said the joint research program between Cargill and the KPRC has no set duration, implying that it may continue for a long time.
``Our industrial bioproducts program is a long-term initiative that requires a long-term commitment, not just from Cargill, but from our research and commercial partners as well,'' Stoppert said.