It’s no secret Nebraska is known for its corn production – after all, corn is the state’s largest commercial crop. However, what may not be as well known is the diversity of corn – how its impact extends far beyond the food and biofuels industries.
For example, Nebraska-grown corn is currently used to create bioplastics, textiles, chemicals and a variety of other products that once required petroleum – a boon to the environment, farmers across the state and Nebraska’s economy. In addition, research is underway to determine if zein, a protein found in corn, can be used as a carrier to treat cancer.
A company located just outside of Omaha is a leader in exploring these new opportunities.
Manufacturing Eco-Friendly Products
NatureWorks LLC is using the renewable resource of plant sugars from field corn to create innovations for uses in manufacturing as diverse as fresh food packaging, clothing and consumer electronics. Marketed under the IngeoTM brand name, the NatureWorks plant in Blair has the capacity to produce approximately 350 million pounds of the advanced performance bioplastics for use around the globe.
In essence, sugars from corn replace oil and other nonrenewable materials. The company notes that corn is the starting point, not the destination. IngeoTM can be made from any available sugar.
While NatureWorks has developed an advanced and innovative process, the basic process begins with fermenting the starch in yellow dent field corn into lactic acid and ends with pellets that are shipped around the globe and used in consumer and industrial products like rigid and flexible packaging, foodservice ware and much more.
According to NatureWorks, products created with IngeoTM are highly environmentally friendly as they have smaller carbon footprints and require less nonrenewable energy to produce than all other fossil carbon-based plastics. Additionally, once they have served their function, products such as foodservice ware can be composted with other organic wastes, while other products can be recycled into other useful end markets, incinerated for energy generation or sent to a landfill where they remain inert and do not impact greenhouse emissions, water tables or soil quality.
“If these products made from corn are put in a compostable situation, they can go full circle – breaking down, being absorbed by the soil – and that’s really appealing to many people right now,” Brunkhorst says.
Although research is still underway, the major source of protein in corn – zein – is being considered for use in pharmaceutical products that treat cancer.
“The Nebraska Corn Board funded the initial research, and we worked with Dr. Yiqi Yang at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to determine if zein has qualities that make it a better carrier in regards to attaching to and attacking some of the cancer cells within one’s body,” Brunkhorst says.
That research turned into a study published by Drs. Xu and Yang in Biomedical Microdevices in 2015, which indicated zein has biological properties that make it an appealing vehicle for delivering therapeutic drugs throughout the body.
Yang says this research is “just the beginning,” and he notes the study’s findings could serve physicians who are looking for more efficient ways of treating cancer and other diseases.