Plants to plastic: SEK replete with possible fuel source


October 22, 2012 - 12:00 AM

A KU center is developing processes for extracting industrial chemicals from cellulose that could create a major new industry for Kansas.
Bala Subramaniam, director of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, presented an outline of the possibilities at the Economic Policy Conference at the university Thursday.
Ten percent of the oil produced becomes feedstock to produce chemicals used in manufacturing plastic, making household products and other commercial products. That production produces two-thirds of the profit realized from the commercial use of oil, Subramaniam said.
The chemicals found in oil are also in plants. The CEBC is developing ways to extract chemicals from biomass cheaply enough to make the use of biomass now wasted — such as wheat straw and corn stalks — into an industry.
Kansas is an ideal place for such an industry to develop, he said, pointing out that the state ranks fourth in the production of biomass, third in production of wind energy, 10th in oil and gas production and is well served with railroads and pipelines.
He believes the potential of extracting chemicals from biomass is great enough to justify devoting 5 percent of Kansas cropland to the production of biomass.
“The demand for carbon-based chemicals will grow three-and-a-half times current production levels by 2050,” he said, “creating a $100 billion market by 2020.”
As an example of new demand for plastic made from biomass, he cited the fact that both Coca-Cola and Heinz are developing “plant bottles” for their products.
“Kansas,” he repeated, “is the fourth-largest producer of biomass today and could become a major feedstock producer for these new products.”
As the technology is developed and moves into commercial production, he speculates, manufacturing plants would be built in agricultural areas. It would be economically beneficial to have the plants close to croplands to reduce the cost of moving the feedstock to the plants.
“If Kansas can capture only 1 percent of the market for these chemicals it would amount to a $7.2 billion industry. That would increase the state’s income base by 20 percent,” he said. Such plants could become major employers.

SOUTHEAST KANSAS should explore this exciting prospect and perhaps use Project 17, the area’s new economic development organization, to partner with the KU center. Moving the experiment from the laboratory to a pilot operation on the land would seem to be a logical next step.
Oil is a finite resource. Science already has made it possible to replace oil with plants for the production of energy. If it becomes economical to use biomass as a feedstock for the chemicals used to manufacture plastic, a major step forward will be made.
The state of Kansas is in a position to profit significantly from that development. And southeast Kansas, with its rich and varied industrial and agricultural base, should lead the way.


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