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Published January 03, 2012, 10:03 AM

Invention could help oilseeds

UND develops new process to produce industrial chemicals

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

A University of North Dakota invention could benefit area farmers who grow oilseeds. It also could reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

UND hopes to license the new technology for commercial use, with a plant utilizing the process eventually built in Grand Forks County, in which UND is located, says Michael Moore, UND associate vice president and principal commercialization officer.

The invention produces industrial chemicals from a number of feedstocks, including oilseeds. Because the process can draw on many different feedstocks, a plant in Grand Forks County wouldn’t necessarily use oilseeds, Moore says.

But if oilseeds were to be used, area agriculture would benefit.

North Dakota leads the nation in the production of sunflowers, flax and canola, all oilseeds, and is ninth in production of soybeans, also an oilseed.

Minnesota ranks near the top in production of the four oilseeds, while South Dakota is the nation’s second-leading producer of sunflowers and eighth-leading producer of soybeans. Oilseeds also are grown in Montana, though to a lesser extent.

Soybeans have a long track record of new, innovative uses, says Jeff Hamre, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association.

Soybeans sometimes are called “the wonder crop” because of their many food and industrial uses.

Hamre says he’s not familiar with the UND invention, but that he’s not surprised by it. He also says soybean growers appreciate the efforts of scientists to expand use of the crop.

Polymers and fossil fuels

According to information from UND: A polymer is a long, repeating chain of atoms. Polymers are widely used in a broad range of industries, including food processing, automotive, agriculture, lubricants, textiles and plastics. The UND invention will “revolutionize the production of several key industrial chemicals that are currently used in making polymers for applications” in those industries.

The process could “significantly” reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels used in the chemical industry, UND says.

Known as the “Method to Produce Short Chain Carboxylic Acids and Esters from Biomass,” the invention received a patent from the U.S.

Patent and Trademark Office.

UND has applied for a number of other patents based on the renewable oil cracking technology and is seeking to license the technology for commercial use, Moore says.

SUNRISE supercluster

The technology was developed under the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education (SUNRISE) supercluster program, which consists of 31 faculty in 13 academic departments at UND, North Dakota State University and Mayville (N.D.) State University.

ND SUNRISE research focuses on the technologies for the environmentally sustainable use of coal; the production of fuels, chemicals, polymers and composites from renewable sources; and the harvesting of energy from diffuse sources (wind/solar/hydrogen), according to information from UND.

Scientists have been working on the newly patented invention for several years, Moore says.

The co-inventors are Alena Kubatova, associate professor of chemistry; Wayne Seames, professor of chemical engineering; and Brian Tande, assistant professor of chemical engineering.