Torrid History of Agricultural Feedstocks in Manufacturing
Before Bissel & Drake made the first successful petroleum oil drilling rig in Titusville Pennsylvania (1859) (1), the vast majority of industrial feedstocks came from agricultural and animal products. Examples include: linseed, castor, tung, tall and soybean oils; natural rubber, gums and starch and cellulose. (2)
In 1941, Henry Ford revealed his Soybean car; made from a tubular steel frame and body panels of soy, hemp, ramie and phenol. It shaved 1,000 pounds off the car’s weight, improved fuel efficiency, and conserved steel needed for the war effort of WWII. (3)
“Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?”—Henry Ford (4)
However, the World War curtailed all auto production, and after the war the national focus was on rebuilding and bringing the troops home. Ford’s car and bio-plastic recipe were lost, with some suspected deliberate destruction by the car’s first designer. (5)
That first discovery by Bissel & Drake sparked a boom in domestic and worldwide petroleum production, and the use of petroleum as a material feedstock in manufacturing (6).
Bright Future of Agricultural Feedstocks
Now research and commercialization of bio-based feedstocks is coming back strong. A variety of reasons have combined to create this momentum: climate destabilization, economic security, preservation of farmland, and side-effects of oil and gas extraction.
The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative displays some really ingenious recent developments. For example, John Deere and Ford Motor Company are making seat cushions from soy-based foams. In the Electronics industry, Bioserie is creating iPhone cases and baby toys from plant-based Polylactic acid polymers (7), and in the food container industry, Zelfo and Upgrading, Inc. have collaborated to produce the first ever post-use agricultural waste food container (8).
The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) was charged with developing the Bio-based products economy by President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13134 (August 1999) (9). NREL sees the strategic importance of deriving manufacturing feedstocks from agricultural assets within the US territories.
“Growth of this industry will facilitate the use of plant and crop-based renewable resources to supplement fossil-based resources and will help serve national goals for energy and the environment.” The established cooperative R&D program through the Office of Industrial Technologies has the goal of increasing plant-derived feedstocks from 3% to 10% by 2020 (10).
The US is far from the only country pursuing this path. Canada, with its vast agricultural economy, has dedicated several research institutions, and even has an eco-industrial park developed as a business incubator (the Canadian Bio-Industrial Innovation Center). Examples of products coming out the Canadian research initiative include:
- Hempline Inc. – The outer portion of the hemp stalk can be used as reinforcement for composite materials, while the inner portion is used for horse bedding and garden mulch.
- Sun Chemical Inks – creates vegetable-based ingredients for inks and coatings. (11)
(2) Princen, L.H.: Alternate Industrial Feedstocks from Agriculture, Economic Botany, 36 (3), 1982, pp. 302-312 New York Botanical Garden
(4) AZ Hemp (2001). “The forgotten history”. NC Industrial Hemp Assoc. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
(6) “US Crude Oil Prodxn, 1920 to 2014” by U.S. Energy Information Administration. – http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=mcrfpus2&f=m. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Crude_Oil_Prodxn,_1920_to_2014.tiff#/media/File:US_Crude_Oil_Prodxn,_1920_to_2014.tiff
(10) Ibid. page 2.