DuPont Creates Carpet from Corn, But Should It?

Posted by: Michael Arndt on May 11, 2010

Today’s lesson in the complexities of environmentalism comes courtesy of DuPont. The specialty-chemical company announced recently that it and Tate & Lyle will expand their bio-products joint venture in Tennessee to boost output of a corn-derived polymer by 35 percent. The product, technically known as 1,3 propanediol, is mostly turned into fibers that DuPont sells under the Sorona brand name to make commercial carpeting and apparel.

The companies see nothing but blue skies from converting corn kernels to carpet. DuPont notes that the bio-substitute allows it to use a third less oil-based material in its Sorona fibers, while Tate & Lyle points out that the JV plant consumes 40 percent less energy and emits 20 percent less climate-affecting gas than if it were refining petroleum. And as everyone knows, corn is a renewable resource that doesn’t have to be tankered to the U.S.

That’s all well and good, but there’s more to the math than that. Corn growers received almost $4 billion in federal subsidies last year, the most of any farmer group, according to a new report by Environmental Working Group. Analyzing ethanol emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the corn-based fuel is better for the atmosphere than petroleum-based fuels. But it also has found that when all greenhouse-gas outputs are added up, from clearing farm acreage to transportation, production methods don’t always meet federal standards of lowering emissions by 20 percent.

(Transforming corn into alcohol is a different process than turning it into a liquid feedstock for plastic, but not that different.)

One of my colleagues at Bloomberg News, in this article, also has linked greater diversion of corn into refineries as a reason for rising beef and pork prices, by increasing feed prices. Tate & Lyle, which has four U.S. corn refineries and processes 2 percent of the U.S. crop, cites figures showing that 40 percent of the 2008-09 harvest went into the broad category of food, seed, and industrial use. That’s up from 22 percent in 2004-05, and the increase is all due to greater industrial use such as ethanol production.

DuPont says expansion of the bio-polymer plant, which originally cost $100 million and opened three years ago, will start in June and should be completed in early 2011. Of course, it alone won’t change the earth’s balance. As a Tate & Lye spokesman tells me in an email: “The volumes of corn used in this process are very small when seen in the context of the total market.” But I’d like to know what you think: Do the pros turning corn into an oil substitute outweigh the cons?

Reader Comments

Ana Maria Nuhlicek

May 11, 2010 10:36 PM

The article is very interesting but
the date confused to me.

Posted on November 5, 2010.

We are in May, 2010 ?????

It Was in 2009? I found that was on May 5, 2010. Thanks.

Drew

May 17, 2010 2:47 PM

We pay people not to grow crops in this county. That is crazy. Maybe if demand goes up enough we can stop paying that $4 billion in federal subsities to artificially inflate prices.

Johan Melchior

May 18, 2010 9:31 AM

For the sake of the environment, our economy and geopolitical security, I believe one of the biggest challenges ahead is breaking our addiction to oil. It is therefore essential that we encourage efforts to replace petrochemicals. Today, most of our fuel, fiber and chemicals are made from oil, but using biotechnology we can produce many of them from agricultural input instead.

Re corn ethanol and greenhouse gas: Production technology in this area has improved tremendously over the past couple of years and continues to improve. A 2009 life cycle assessment of the majority of U.S. corn ethanol capacity showed GHG emission reductions of 48% to 59% compared to gasoline (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121647166/abstract).

Re ethanol and meat prices: Blaming ethanol for the rise in meat prices is wrong. While corn-based biofuel is made from the starch part of the corn kernels, the rest of the kernel contains protein, which is used for animal feed in the form of DDGS (Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles). This feed byproduct from biofuel production is being ignored by those who wish to blame ethanol for rising food prices. In 2009, the IEA Bioenergy Task 39 (under the OECD) issued a report (http://www.thebioenergysite.com/articles/contents/IEA_report1.pdf) which showed that biofuel actually produces more feed than traditional feed production on the same area. The report concluded that the quantity of DDGS obtained by growing 1 hectare of corn for ethanol can replace the equivalent of 1.2 hectares of soy grown for feed. Thus growing crops for ethanol does not displace other crops; in fact it more than replaces them, as the ethanol production actually saves more land than is needed to produce the corn. Other factors are the real causes of rising food prices.

Finally, in February this year, Novozymes launched a commercial enzyme product that allowed the production of biofuel from agricultural waste (biomass) at a price competitive with gasoline. The process is more or less the same as for biobased chemicals: Enzymes convert corn stalks and leaves to sugar which is fermented into ethanol.

Biomass is the world’s largest potential energy source, and as this technology is commercialized we’ll be able to produce even more food, feed and fiber from the same area of land. This will be necessary in a world that will need twice the amount of food to feed the population of 2050 and fuel for 3 billion cars instead of the 0.7 billion on the road today.

wer

June 3, 2010 7:50 AM

land. This will be necessary in a world that will need twice the amount of food to feed the population of 2050

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