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Spring 2001

Our new oil fields
By Steve Tally


Today ethanol is produced from manufactured corn starch, which can only be extracted from the corn kernel. But Purdue researchers Michael Ladisch, Nancy Ho and others in LORRE have developed commercially viable methods to also break down the other corn plant materials. The result is that 10 percent more ethanol can be produced from each bushel of corn.

"The economists say that ethanol is too expensive to use as an alternative fuel, but they are basing this on current production methods," Ladisch says. "Companies are adopting our methods, and this will lower the cost of ethanol."

Hydrocarbon Hollow

Although the Midwest hasn't suffered the energy blackouts of the West Coast or the soaring fuel oil prices of the Northeast, there is still plenty of incentive for people in the Corn Belt to pay attention to this fledgling industry. "If we're ever going to realize a bio-based economy, the chances are very good that the industry that builds around that is going to be located in the Midwest," says Randy Woodson, director of Purdue's Office of Agricultural Research Programs. "You're not going to ship corn halfway across the nation to use in a factory. You would build the factory here. Right now, most of the oil refineries are in Texas, because that's where the crude oil is. But if we're using plant oil instead of crude oil, those refineries are going to be built in the Midwest."

To encourage more such investments in the Midwest, Purdue has joined forces with Ames Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory, Iowa State University, Michigan State University and the University of Illinois to combine research efforts in developing bio-based products. These institutions are charter members of the Midwest Consortium for Sustainable bio-based Products and Bioenergy.

"The institutions that are part of this consortium have all been conducting research to find additional uses for agricultural products," Woodson says. "By joining forces, we plan to draw on one another's strengths to develop products and industries that will benefit the entire Midwest," Woodson says.

Purdue Grads Are Ready

Despite the advantages of using biodegradable, renewable resources, most products are still made from petroleum instead of plants. Tao says a look around will show thousands of products that were once made from plants that are now made from petroleum products. "Candles, for one," he says, holding up a blueberry-scented votive made from soybean oil. "It's only been in the last 60 to 70 years that paraffin wax candles were common." The candle was an entry in an annual contest sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Board. Students at Purdue have created a variety of products that replace petroleum products with soybean oil, such as candles, crayons, ski wax and fire starters.

 

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