The Future of Corn is in Chemicals

Dr. Mike Ladisch

The National Corn Utilization Conference concluded in Indianapolis on Wednesday with a good deal of optimism about the future of corn. Throughout history, corn has been looked at as a food source; and, in the past few decades, we have come to see it as an energy source. But, in the future, the corn plant will be seen as a source of chemical products.  That according to Dr. Mike Ladisch of Purdue, the keynote speaker at the CUC, “Corn is a source of very pure sugars and starches.  There are new developments in both biotechnology and chemical technology that allow us to catalyze new chemicals and products from these sugars and starches.”


He said the research being highlighted at this week’s conference looks at corn in a whole new way, “We can now look at corn as a source of chemicals.” He said, while this has been done before, the tools we now have make it more efficient than ever. He told HAT that, going forward, chemical companies will begin to see the chemicals that can be made from corn as a much more economical and sustainable source than current petroleum products.   As a result, plastics, resins, and other products currently being made with petroleum may be made with corn in the not too distant future.  Dr. Ladisch said some of the most exciting things happening in research right now are advances in cellulose conversion and in understanding how enzymes and micro-organisms are able to convert things like corn stalks to things like ethanol and sugars, “What we’re now doing is applying this to corn. As a consequence it will make corn processing more efficient but also open up avenues for making new products, high value products, from the corn kernel.” He thinks this conference is a tremendous way of learning about new developments in agriculture from both a scientific and a practical point of view.


Ladisch says, unlike the revolution the ethanol industry caused in the corm market, this move to corn chemistry will be more evolutionary with ethanol companies leading the way into these new markets, “In many cases, it will be the large ethanol processing plants that will produce these chemicals as a bi-product of the ethanol process. Thus, this approach will not cause a massive increase in the demand for corn but rather make the processing of corn more profitable by offering a number of products for a many new markets.”  He believes will help avoid the food vs. fuel argument since an increase in corn use will not be needed, and that, by increasing the value of the crop, growers will see higher prices.


The key, however, is consistent and ongoing research to bring these ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace. To help foster this research, the National Corn Growers Association has launched a clearinghouse where research discoveries and advances on corn will be collected and made available to the research community.


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