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Corn-Based Textile Facility Reveals a Kernel of the Future

Cargill Dow LLC has announced the grand opening of the world’s first global-scale manufacturing facility capable of making commercial-grade plastic resins from annually renewable resources such as ordinary field corn.

NatureWorks PLA and NatureWorks fibers, made from corn-based fibers, are used to make a variety of consumer items including clothing, food packaging and bedding, and will be competing with traditional petroleum-based plastics head-to-head on performance and price.

According to Cargill Dow R CEO andy Howard, the strong appeal for NatureWorks PLA (polylactide) is based on the overall performance it delivers.

"People buy products based on value and performance," Howard said. "What we have done is expanded the definition of both. To us, value and performance are not just how products themselves perform, but should also encompass the raw materials they come from, how they are made and where the products will go at the end of their useful lives. This is the kind of sustainable vision we are applying to our business model. Our goal is to create plastics today without compromising the earth’s ability to meet the needs for tomorrow."

The new, 16-acre Cargill Dow new facility stands on a site that was once, itself, a cornfield. The plant is capable of producing more than 300 million pounds (140,000 metric tons) of NatureWorks PLA per year and uses up to 40,000 bushels of locally grown corn per day as the raw material for the manufacturing process.

In essence, the facility harvests the carbon naturally stored in simple plant sugars when a plant, in this case corn, undergoes the process of photosynthesis. Through a process of simple fermentation and distillation, Cargill Dow is able to extract the carbon and use it as the basic building block for commercial grade plastics and fibers. In contrast to traditional thermoplastics that rely on the earth’s limited supply of petroleum as a base feedstock, the company is using raw materials that are annually grown and in abundant supply.

"The idea of creating a more sustainable business model is to establish a new industrial system where society can go on forever without depleting the earth’s natural resources, without compromising people and helping create a better quality of life," said Dr. Pat Gruber, vice president and chief technology officer of Cargill Dow. "We take this idea very seriously and believe we are developing a system that accomplishes that. We are taking the energy that comes from sunlight and are using it as the basis for products, such as packaging, that help prevent food spoilage, as well as clothing that is more comfortable and durable. And, we’re doing it in a socially and environmentally responsible way that will help preserve the world for my kids’ generation and generations beyond."

From the corn planter to the retail counter, NatureWorks PLA has a lifecycle that reduces fossil fuel consumption by up to 50 percent. In addition, the process to make NatureWorks PLA generates 15 percent to 60 percent less greenhouse gases (GHG) than the material it replaces. Research also shows that technology advancements in PLA could allow up to 80 percent to 100 percent reduction in GHGs.

Located just outside of Omaha, the manufacturing plant represents nearly $750 million of investment to develop this new technology. Previously, the company was developing limited quantities of materials at a semi-works facility outside Minneapolis.

The result of the new plant coming on line will be a dramatic increase in the commercial availability of NatureWorks PLA and fibers, as well as paving the way for a number of consumer products scheduled for introduction throughout 2002 and 2003. Cargill Dow will also be spending about $250 million over the next few years on commercial development, product technology development, and developments of technology to enable the conversion of biomass (such as corn stalks, wheat straw, grasses, and other agricultural waste products) to PLA.

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