Meeting the needs of the 9.6 billion people and the industries that support them in 2050 will require a new generation of chemicals made from sources other than petroleum. Iowa State University research is discovering new compounds and ingredients from plants that will fuel inventions of products from materials that don’t exist today, improve the environment, and invigorate American manufacturing.

Three research centers at Iowa State have joined forces to develop “a second wave of innovation” in chemistry, the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), the Center for Crops Utilization Research, and the BioCentury Research Farm.

Brent Shanks, director of CBiRC, said today’s petrochemical industry is locked into seven platform chemical compounds. “They have really gone as far as they can. They don’t introduce new products much and it’s all become a low-cost industry of feedstocks,” he said.

“Biobased chemicals are the chance for the second wave of innovation in the chemical space. Not only because we now can use biomass carbon to make existing products, but we also can start accessing new chemical compounds that aren’t easy to get from crude oil,” Shanks added.

Plant-derived chemical compounds developed by the center have the potential to be used in industry around the country for such diverse products as carpet, soft drink bottles, adhesives, lubricants, cosmetics, and aromatics. The center also has helped faculty and student researchers launch five startup companies that aim to manufacture chemical compounds.

Larry Johnson, director of Iowa State’s Center for Crops Utilization Research and the BioCentury Research Farm, credits Iowa State’s unique research facilities and ingredient expertise for propelling the university to leadership in biorenewable chemicals.

“We have the world’s best program in ingredients – how you take a plant apart and make an ingredient as opposed to taking an ingredient and making something out of it,” Johnson said.

“You will see truly unique facilities here that are very near demonstration scale but allow us to partner with companies, and they take it to the next level.

“I once took something in a beaker to ADM (Archer Daniels Midland Company), and they said that’s interesting. Come back when you can do it on equipment we have to work with. That’s what our facilities allow us to do,” he added.

Scientists at Iowa State have discovered a cost-effective way to extract oil from soybeans with a combination of water and enzymes to replace hexane, a hazardous product of gasoline refining.

“There are a lot of people who are concerned about residual hexane in their food supply and want to do this in a more green and environmentally friendly way. Enzymes and water achieve that,” Johnson added. “It has the potential to be transformational.”

Iowa State’s interdisciplinary focus on biorenewables is a focus of Destination 2050, a university-wide initiative to apply the vast capabilities of Iowa State to meet food, health, environmental, and industrial challenges facing a global population of 9.6 billion people 35 years from now.