Ag Has So Many Answers

Amanda Huber, Editor
Amanda Huber, Editor

Given time and investment, many of the world’s biggest problems can be solved through agricultural research. One such issue is the prolific use of synthetic, nonbiodegradable plastics that are dumped on the world daily. Scientists are currently working to develop plant-based, biodegradable polymers to replace these synthetic versions from corn waste. 

Dr. Jingyuan Xu, a physical scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, and his team are using leftover byproducts—corn and sorghum stover, fruit peels and other agriculture waste —to produce cellulose and nanocellulose, a biodegradable product. Even the manufacture of ethanol has a cellulose byproduct.

The stalks and leaves left over after crops such as corn, sorghum and soybeans are harvested are often kept in the field to degrade and protect the soil. However, researchers say more waste is left in the field than is needed for those benefits. This extra waste could be made into a value-added product, says Xu. 

The nanocellulose from corn waste that is turned into biopolymers by Xu and his team can be used as a replacement for popular synthetic products, including pharmaceutical gel caps, hair gels and polymers for treating wastewater. This adds value to an agriculture waste product and is better for the environment because it is biodegradable. 

Synthetic polymers are cheap and easy to manufacture. Making the conversion of corn waste into usable, biodegradable polymers more cost effective is a next step in the research process. 

Overall, Xu says the most important factor now is demonstrating the long-term benefits of producing biodegradable materials from agriculture waste.

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