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Golden fields of plastics

"Plastics." In the 1960s, that word meant the future of an industry worth billions. Now, by using science and expertise, two industry leaders may change that definition to mean "corn."

There's gold in those kernels. Shortly after you read this, Cargill Dow Polymers LLC will begin erecting a wet milling plant in Blair, NE, that will make plastic from corn.

The plant is expected to use 40,000 bu. of corn/day for an annual use of 14 million bushels. Starting in 2001, the company plans to build a plant every 18 to 24 months, including plants in Europe and Asia.

By gradually adding more processing plants, it expects, by 2010, to stake a claim of 1 billion lbs. of polymer in a business that produces 300 to 400 billion lbs./yr. Eventually, 500 million bu. of corn/yr. could be used to make the polymer and related plastics - about the same amount of corn used each year to make ethanol.

Make a silk purse out of... To make what the company has labeled NatureWorks PLA (polylactide polymer), dextrose sugar (abundant in corn) is extracted from corn and made into polymer. The polymer can be used to create textiles, food containers or even furniture. The possibilities are endless.

PLA is biodegradable. "For all practical purposes, shelf life is indefinite - much like polyester - at room temperature with little or no moisture," says Jo hn Ohman, marketing manager. "What triggers degredation is compost conditions."

Why a partnership? "Cargill invented this technology," he says. "But it needed plastic marketing and production expertise to do this on a worldwide scale, which Dow brings to the table." The initial plant and business system will cost more than $300 million over the next couple of years. "This is a world-scale plastics plant being built," Ohman adds. "And it's not being built on a whim."

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