IN THIS ISSUE:
Grain to carbohydrates to dollars. Thats the formula for boosting the value of Montana agricultural products and perhaps stimulating new business in the state, according to University of Montana chemistry Professor Don Kiely.
Formerly a professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and now head of the Shafizadeh Rocky Mountain Center for Wood and Carbohydrate Chemistry at UM, Kiely has spent nearly 20 years researching ways to turn starch the form of carbohydrate stored in plants, especially food crops like corn and wheat into new materials for use in a variety of industries and applications.
He holds seven patents and one patent application on techniques to create synthetic, biodegradable carbohydrate polymers that potentially could be used in paper manufacture, wastewater treatment, disposable diapers, detergents, adhesives, paints, some plastics and time-release fertilizers. Polymers are large molecules natural or man-made that contain many smaller molecules linked in a chain.
Starch is a natural polymer of the sugar glucose.
An untapped resource
Kiely believes that in Montana, wheat, barley and other grains represent an untapped well of raw materials that could be converted into value-added products for the benefit of growers and other businesses in the state. Last summer, Kielys research ideas caught the attention of participants at a technology-transfer conference in Lewistown, organized by the Montana Ambassadors program of the state commerce department and Montana Rural Development Partners Inc. of Anaconda.
Weve done a lot of work to improve the methods and efficiency of growing crops, says rancher Fred Davison of Highwood, who attended the meeting. But very little has been invested so far in ways to add value to these commodities before they are sold.
This situation may be changing. Kiely, Davison and others from the Lewistown conference have formed the Montana Agricultural Product Processing Consortium. The goal of the fledgling organization is to connect farmers, businesspeople, university researchers and representatives of state agencies to stimulate the development and application of technologies that will increase the value of grain carbohydrates for Montana growers. The Shafizadeh Center is the primary carbohydrate technology resource for this effort.
A versatile substance
This is Kielys area of interest. He has been working on a method to convert glucose obtained from starch to glucaric acid. Many kinds of fruits and vegetables contain some amount of glucaric acid, which is similar to other sugar-based molecules like lactic and citric acids. It is a byproduct of human metabolism and as such is safe for human consumption and does not require Food and Drug Administration approval for use. One intriguing aspect of glucaric acid is its ability to remove toxins from tissues. For this reason, Kiely says, it has begun to be marketed on a relatively small scale in nutritional supplements as a protection against cancer-causing agents.
To date, however, there has been no efficient way to manufacture glucaric acid on an industrial scale.
If we could make glucaric acid in a simple and cost-effective way, we could tap into the most available, least expensive agricultural source of materials available, Kiely says.
Kiely believes he and Shafizadeh Center colleagues Glenn Ponder and Beverly Parker have achieved a workable process for glucaric acid production in laboratory-scale experiments and are ready to attempt larger scale trials in the field, pending funding. Quantity often can be a factor in chemistry, he says. Processes that work well in small trials will not always be successful at the commercial or industrial level. However, Kiely believes that the larger quantities involved should actually improve the efficiency of the chemical conversion in his process. A successful pilot demonstration would generate between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds of glucaric acid a year, he says.
In addition to uses by itself, the chemical structure of glucaric acid makes it uniquely suited for use in synthetic polymers in ways that other sugar-derived acids are not. Since the early 1980s, Kiely has been working on replacing the petroleum-based molecules commonly used in synthetic polymers with carbohydrate components. Substituting glucaric acid or other carbohydrate molecules renders polymers more biodegradable and therefore more environmentally friendly when the products they make end up in gutters or landfills.
Wed like to use carbohydrate polymers to make materials that will be used for short-term applications from plastic utensils to industrial chemicals so that when they are discarded they will degrade safely, Kiely says.
Right now we are in a kind of Catch-22 situation, he adds. Not a lot of uses for glucaric acid by itself or in polymer form have been developed because the substance has not been available in large quantities. And because it has not been available commercially, no one has developed uses for it.
Generally speaking, Kiely says, if materials exist in quantity and are inexpensive, people will find uses for them. And with the increasing use of glucaric acid in dietary supplements, the commercial picture is beginning to brighten for agricultural carbohydrates.
Kiely says that his goal in carbohydrate chemistry always has been to generate products that are economical, have important uses, and are safe for people and the environment. Now there is the potential to apply the fruits of this labor to Montana agriculture.
-- Caroline Lupfer Kurtz