Surgery on Plastics
Mon Jan 26, 2015 08:41 AM CST
Dharma Kodali spends his days designing chemical ingredients from plants that are better than the products currently derived from petroleum. (Progressive Farmer photo by David L. Hansen)

Today, we live in a world surrounded by plastics made from petrochemicals. Tomorrow, we may live in a world where these plastics will be made from plant-based products that are easier to recycle, reduce the carbon footprint and open new markets for the crops you raise.

Dharma Kodali is one of the researchers making this change happen. His focus is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastics. PVCs are found in more than just plumbing pipes; they are also found in car bumpers, shower curtains, credit cards, children's toys and much more. Kodali's goal is to insert soybean oil in the basic ingredient list for PVC plastics.

"Six years ago, the conventional thinking was using vegetable oil wouldn't work," Kodali said.

That changed when he, with help from a soybean checkoff grant, discovered a way to modify the structure of soybean oil to easily combine with polymers used to make PVCs. Plastics from his lab using soy oil are as flexible and tough as regular PVCs. He has filed two patent applications and is working with major chemical manufacturers to commercialize the process.


Kodali is one of an army of scientists working to replace petrochemicals with plant-based materials to lower costs and improve performance. Their research could change the demand curve for corn, soybeans and other crops, as well as create a world no longer filled with plastics made from petrochemicals.

Their efforts are reminiscent of earlier researchers who looked for ways to overcome the challenges of using corn and soybean oil for fuel. That resulted in corn ethanol and biodiesel. Today, the research focus is on biobased products, the industrial use of chemicals derived from corn, soybeans, wheat and other plants.

Currently, about 10% of the chemical market is biobased chemicals. The October 2014 USDA report "Why Biobased?" concludes there is the potential to produce two-thirds of the total volume of chemicals from biobased materials, representing more than 50,000 products, a $1 trillion annual global market.

"The emerging bioeconomy has the potential to create unprecedented growth in the rural economy and create a higher level of self-sufficiency for farming and rural communities," the report said. There are key drivers for plant-based chemicals to replace petroleum-based chemicals. They include government purchasing programs that encourage purchasing biobased products, cost and performance advantages from using plant-based products, and consumer preferences for greener products.

Mike Erker has a front-row seat to watch the transition to plant-based products in his job as director of biobased products for the United Soybean Board. He sees the growth in soy and other green products being used in paints, plastics, cleaners and fibers, to name a few. One example is the soy products in 100% of the seats and 70% of the headrests of Ford vehicles built in North America. "The future is bright. Everyone agrees there is a finite amount of oil, and the research taking place will open new doors," he said. "Biobased products from all kinds of agriculture are going to continue to grow."


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