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Ohio companies find opportunity in sustainable, bio-based products

OBIC's $300 million integrated biorefinery near the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill in Grove City.
OBIC's $300 million integrated biorefinery near the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill in Grove City. - Photos Submitted
At the beginning of each semester, Lindsey Whetstone, an agricultural educator for Jackson Center High School near Lima, Ohio, always asks the ninth-grade students in her “Introduction to Agriculture” class the same question.

“What is agriculture?”

“The first word that always comes out of their mouth is ‘farming,’” Whetstone says.

The Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center is making sure the answer to Whetstone’s question is always changing. The Center, a part of The Ohio State University in Columbus, is helping companies find feedstock from sustainably sourced, bio-based materials. The Center[ has had a hand in researching, developing, and marketing projects ranging everywhere from bio-based milk cartons to asphalt.

“Our goal is to help clients find ways to maximize bioproduct revenue,” says Denny Hall, the interim director of OBIC.

OBIC has assisted clients in earning 10 awards from the Ohio Third Frontier Commission to continue research to advance and commercialize bioproducts. Hall pointed to a PowerPoint slide of the cluster of blue dots representing all the companies OBIC has worked with. Most are big-name firms like Ashland Inc., Cooper Tires and Rubber Company, Owens Corning, the PolyOne Corporation, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Sherwin Williams.

“I’d say 85-90 percent of these blue dots represent Ohio companies,” Hall says. “We’ve helped over 60 companies in Ohio to benefit from over $100 million of supplemental funding.”

Mel Kurtz, the president of Quasar Energy Group, says the demand for bioproducts has grown since the creation of OBIC in 2006.

“I don’t think anyone was thinking about using growing a crop as an energy source other than the ethanol industry six or seven years ago,” Kurtz says.  “When the Ohio State University, one of the largest public universities and the largest agriculture department in the country, gets involved with something, it allows us to make progress faster.”

OBIC’s latest project might be its biggest. On January 7, the Center  announced it will play a role in the creation of a $300 million integrated biorefinery near the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill in Grove City.  The biorefinery, built with funds from the private sector, will produce a sufficient amount of energy to power more than 30,000 homes.

Among the many facets of the biorefinery will be 35 acres of solar-powered greenhouses. An anaerobic digestor at the biorefinery will produce a biogas that will heat and cool 15 acres of aquaculture and aquaponically produced lettuce and 20 acres of hydroponically produced tomatoes.

“This is a real game-changer,” Hall says. “It’ll transform central Ohio into one of the most sustainable communities in North America. It’s a very compelling, very profitable exercise.”

“The idea of an integrated system where the byproduct of X is a feedstock for Y and the byproduct of Y is a feedstock for Z is really exciting.”

The biorefinery is a huge milestone in OBIC’s trek and a significant shift from where OBIC started. The Center began in 2005, as a Wright Center of Innovation with a $10.5 million grant from the Ohio Third Frontier Commission.

“One of the first things we were created to do is to add value to corn and soybeans,” Hall says. “Back eight years ago, the market for those crops wasn’t very strong. Corn was like $2.50 a bushel and soybeans were $5 or $6 a bushel.”

An example of OBIC’s work back then was finding markets for a biopolymer that was made out of 40 percent soy. The product was created in a joint venture by Univenture Inc. and Battelle with help from the Ohio Soybean Council. It reduces the amount of petroleum that is used while maintaining the structural integrity of traditional plastics.

More than 90 companies, including Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Hoover and Colgate, have contacted Univenture’s Biobent Polymer Division about the material.

OBIC has also helped Ashland Inc. identify markets for a biocomposite called Envirez, which is used in everything from speedboats to tractors.

“If you have seen a John Deere combine, those green panels on its side are made from Envirez,” Hall says. “It’s lighter in weight and doesn’t cost as much to manufacture. If you can make the parts in a vehicle lighter, you get better fuel economy.”

The market price on corn ($7 a bushel in the 2012-13 marketing year according to AgWeek.com) and soybeans (which hit a record high of $17.70 last August according to BloombergBusinessWeek.com) has nearly tripled since OBIC started.  The Center quickly expanded to helping companies develop other projects beyond soybeans and corn.

The Center is also helping high school teachers come up with lesson plans for students on the many uses of bioproducts. For example at Jackson Center, students have done comparison studies of traditional cleaners to organic and bio-based cleaners as well as experiments with bio-based plastics.

As a result, OBIC is developing another renewable source of power -- harnessing the excitement of high school students.

“It’s been a great opportunity to work with OBIC,” Whetstone says. “Students can learn a lot of new things that are coming out that they may not have been aware of before.

“It’s important for students to understand everything out there involves agriculture. Farmers aren’t just feeding the world, but they’re involved with other products we use on a daily basis.”

Paul Batterson is a freelance writer based in Columbus.
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