Corn in your tires, soybeans in your walls

There are stranger things… than were ever dreamed of, Shakespeare wrote. Now, in a turnabout, man-made fibers and other formerly synthetic materials are being replaced with those that are crop-based. Among them, a fiber from corn, the world's first tire using a compound also derived from corn, and a soy-based spray foam building insulation.

Goodyear's GT3 tire, unveiled at a major European auto show, incorporates a new starch-based filler material, BioTRED, derived from corn feedstock.

It offers, says Filomeno Corvasce, the Goodyear engineer who developed it, “important environmental advantages, including remarkably lower rolling resistance, less fuel consumption, noise reduction, lower carbon dioxide emissions, and less energy consumption in the production processes.” Ford will use it first in Europe on a new fuel-stingy version of its Fiesta, after which it will be made available elsewhere.

HealthySeal is a soy-based spray foam insulation developed, in part, with funding by the United Soybean Board and the soybean check-off program. The product, available through BioPolymers LLC, Atlanta, is a two-part foam that expands in the wall or roof cavity to fill all spaces, offering less toxicity and performance that is highly competitive with traditional spray foam or Fiberglas. An application for an average 2,500-square foot home uses oil from approximately 15 bushels of soybeans.

In the man-made fiber arena over the years, we've had nylon and rayon and orlon and vinyon and spandex and olefin and who-knows-how-many others made from petrochemicals. Some have been successful, undercutting cotton in the competition for consumer dollars; others have been colossal duds. Most of the successes in the clothing market have been those that incorporated a sizeable percentage of cotton.

Now DuPont, a pioneer in the man-made fiber industry, says its scientists have developed a bio-based process that uses corn to produce the polymer base for its Sorona fiber, which has potential for a wide variety of uses, from apparel to carpets to automobile interiors.

“The Polymer of the Future” from annually renewable agricultural products is how DuPont scientist Scott Nichols described it in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver. Sorona fiber, DuPont says, offers advantages over both polyester and nylon — a softer feel; easier, more versatile dyeability; excellent washfastness; and resistance to ultraviolet light. “It has a comfortable, natural feel, and can be dyed in beautiful, rich colors,” says Joseph Carroll, global business manager for the fiber.

The technology for the polymer has been around since the 1940s, he notes, “but no one had a route to produce it economically.” Manufacturing of Sorona bio-based polymer at the company's Kinston, N.C., manufacturing plant, will begin later this year; it will be sold to licensees around the world.

These are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of bio-based materials as manufacturers look for ways to make “green” products that are more environmentally acceptable than those from petrochemicals. Add to that the supply uncertainty and price volatility of anything involving imported petroleum, and the appeal of these products is even greater.

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