April 13, 2024

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Minnesota startup aims to make sustainable acrylics using corn instead of petroleum

A startup firm that originated from University of Minnesota research is working to popularize a process of making acrylic acid — a common ingredient in dozens of products ranging from paint to diapers — from corn-derived lactic acid rather than petroleum.

Lakril Technologies recently won a National Corn Growers Association contest for business ventures that use field corn in innovative ways. It’s also the beneficiary of a $100,000 grant from the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council, which allocates funds from the state’s corn checkoff program.

“We’re always looking for new ways to utilize corn,” said Brandon Fast, a Mountain Lake corn farmer and chairman of the Corn Research and Promotion Council. “Here’s a way that we might be able to lessen the demand over time for petroleum in household products.”

It is likely years before corn could be a significant replacement for petroleum as the main ingredient in acrylics. But interest is growing, and profits are increasingly derived from methods that reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

Cargill formed a joint venture earlier this year to build a $300 million facility in Iowa where it plans to make a corn-derived polymer to replace the petroleum-based version used to line paper coffee cups or make spandex clothing.

“These materials that we’re working with — plastics, polymers, paint — exist on a massive scale, so you need an ingredient that can supply to that level. Corn fits that bill,” said Paul Dauenhauer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Dauenhauer developed the process that’s being put into use by Lakril Technologies, and he co-founded the firm with Chris Leonard, another chemical engineer who will serve as its president. The University of Minnesota holds the patent on Dauenhauer’s technology, which the company is licensing exclusively.

The firm recently decided to establish a Chicago headquarters and has a goal of using its process commercially by the end of 2024.

A clear liquid with a pungent odor, acrylic acid and its derivatives comprise a $10 billion worldwide market. Currently, about half of acrylic acid produced worldwide is used to make superabsorbent polymers for diapers, according to the trade publication Chemical & Engineering News. It’s also used to manufacture different types of plastics, protective coatings, adhesives, floor polish, paint and detergents, in textile production and water treatment.

Lactic acid is produced by fermenting corn feedstock. Dauenhauer explains the process by which it’s converted into acrylic acid as a simple molecular modification. Cargill and other companies have previously invested with little success in attempts to produce acrylic acids using less carbon, the release of which into the atmosphere is the main factor in climate change.

“We believe we have yield advantages over these previous efforts,” Leonard said. Lakril says their process would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in traditional acrylic acid production by at least 35%.

Using corn to produce widely available consumer products could become increasingly important for the crop’s producers at a time when car manufacturers are seeing a growing market in alternatives to fossil-fueled vehicles.

“With the push to electric vehicles, that’s worrisome for ethanol,” Fast said. “This is another thing we hope can move forward to get that corn market growing.”

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