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By Staff | Apr 30, 2010

Jay Olson, polymers technology manager at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center in Moline, Ill., explained how John Deere has incorporated bioplastics into its farm equipment.

By DARCY

DOUGHERTY

MAULSBY

Farm News staff writer

WATERLOO – From molded styling panels in combines to tractor cab roofs, bio-based plastics are helping companies like Deere & Co, go green and showcase the potential for bio-based resins made from corn and soybeans.

“The number-one reason we looked into bio-polymers was to support our farmer customers,” said Jay Olson, polymers technology manager at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center in Moline, Ill. “At John Deere, we also want to focus on using recycled or renewable materials whenever feasible, and we continue to look at new ways to use bio-based materials in our equipment.” Olson spoke at an Alternative Materials Conference 2010 Tuesday in Waterloo.

Through a collaboration with the United Soybean Board and soybean checkoff funding, John Deere first began installing molded, soy-based styling panels in combines in 2001.

The plastic is derived from refined soybean oil that is processed into a liquid resin. Today, the soybean- and corn-based composite material is used on many John Deere combines, backhoes and tractors.

While John Deere’s use of the sheet molding compound is only about 1 percent of the total SMC used in the United States, the company can provide the supply chain “pull” to initiate commercialization of more bio-based plastics, said Olson.

“We viewed our role as a way to develop the early validation of bio-plastics so other companies would consider the possibilities,” added Olson, who noted that John Deere is currently working with Sears Manufacturing in Davenport, on soy-based urethane foams for seating and arm rests that may be available in the company’s 2011 equipment.

“You have to walk before you run, and we’re taking things one step at a time to keep moving forward and truly be a green company.”

Breaking the mold

Building the market for ag-based bioplastics by starting with farm equipment is wise, said Dr. Chad Ulven, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at North Dakota State University. “It will be important to have a consistent supply in the volumes needed by the plastics industry.”

NDSU researchers like Ulven have been studying corn cobs, oat hulls, distiller’s dried grains, flax and other natural materials, along with polymers ranging from polypropylene to epoxy, to learn what processing temperatures and other factors will result in the types of bioplastics that companies require.

Ulven noted that NDSU is also developing data sheets that will help various industries integrate bioplastics more easily into their operations.

“Bioplastics are a different animal when it comes to injection molding and extrusion. If companies try to process bio-based materials the way they process other materials, it can create challenges, such as how the material flows through the equipment. That’s why educating customers about the specific traits of bioplastics is so important.”

The various aromas of bio-based plastics are a factor that catches many companies off guard. When Composite Products of Winona, Minn., processes corn-based plastic, people think the company is making Frito Lay chips, said Darin Grinsteinner, manager of engineering. There has to be a curing time that allows the finished material to aspire, so the natural aromas dissipate, added Sam McCord, CEO of the Iowa-based company MCG BioComposites LLC, which develops specific bio-based formulations to meet the needs of farm equipment manufacturers, door and window companies, and other companies.

“Biomass in plastics requires a whole different way of thinking,” said McCord, whose company has worked extensively with using corn cobs as a filler in plastic materials.

“For one thing, you need to lower the temperature when working with bio-based materials, so they don’t burn up in the process. By working closely with our customers, we can address these issues and work together to find bio-based plastics that are functional and deliver the quality the client requires.”

Finding new solutions

According to Grinsteinner, this is important as more companies seek bio-based polymers with renewable fillers to replace petroleum-based materials and traditional fillers like calcium carbonate or talc. Composite Products, for example, has studied bio-based materials for 15 years and has quoted prices for pallets, crates, baskets, door panels and more made from bio-based components.

Other opportunities may include tank lids on agricultural equipment, decking, signage and components for office furniture, said Grinsteinner, who noted that the company is currently producing plastic end caps made with distillers dried grains for durable wood/composite pallets.

The future of bio-plastics depends not only on innovative solutions, but the cost-benefit ratio, as well, McCord concluded. “At the end of the day, companies want to know if these products will not only meet their requirements but help them make money or save money. We think there are opportunities here in Iowa to tap into our agricultural biomass resources and work closely with customers to develop bio-based composites that will work and are affordable.”

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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SIDEBAR

Cedar Valley TechWorks Envisions Iowa’s Bioeconomy

The city where the first John Deere Waterloo Boy tractor was built more than 90 years ago is now focusing on the future with the innovative Cedar Valley TechWorks in Waterloo. This 43-acre, regional bioeconomy campus, located near John Deere’s manufacturing facilities, is designed to connect technology, intellectual property and industry innovators to commercialize and manufacture bio-based products, including bio-plastics and more.

“This is an excellent area where companies can incubate new business ideas, commercialize their products and move them into the market,” said Steven Dust, president and CEO of the Cedar Valley Alliance and TechWorks Biomass Technology Campus, who spoke at the recent Alternative Materials Conference 2010 in Waterloo.

While the TechWorks concept and business plan were developed in 2002, the project began to take shape in 2006, when John Deere donated 43 acres, 2.3 million square feet of buildings, and funding to help launch the TechWorks campus. In 2007, 40 obsolete buildings on the campus were demolished to create new development sites, and 325,000 square feet of buildings remain standing. A six-story building where John Deere tractors were once manufactured tractors now houses University of Northern Iowa’s National Ag-Based Lubricants Center and has room for more tenants.

“This is a place where people can see their research ideas come to life,” said Dust, who noted that the TechWorks campus offers easy access to major transportation routes, including Highway 20 and Highway 218.

There are big plans for the TechWorks campus, including a Center for Technology Advancement designed to meet the research, development and educational needs of the growing market for bio-based products. Next steps for this center include a virtual reality laboratory, polymer compounding and testing laboratory, carbon testing laboratory and more.

To share agriculture’s story with a wider audience, the TechWorks campus will also include a new AgriTech Exhibition Center. This highly-interactive facility will showcase Iowa’s agricultural resources, technological advances, bioproducts of the future and modern agricultural practices that enhance the food supply, energy independence, and environmental sustainability.

“We’ve very excited about this,” said Dust, who added that TechWorks is also proposing to power the campus with an innovative system that integrates multiple sources of renewable energy. “We want to celebrate the future of agricultural innovation.”

For more information on TechWorks, log onto www.cedarvalleytechworks.com.

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