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Students' innovations could mean opportunities for farmers

FARGO - Innovations in agriculture can mean more business opportunities for farmers. Alex Sinclair wants to use ag residuals, like corn stalk, soy hulls and wheat straw, to replace petroleum-based sources for plastics. Bonnie Cobb and Joseph Kall...

Alex Sinclair talks about using ag residuals, such as corn stalk, soy hulls and wheat straw, to replace petroleum-based sources for plastics at the North Dakota State University Research and Technology Park’s seventh annual Innovation Challenge. Cody Rogness/The Forum
Alex Sinclair talks about using ag residuals, such as corn stalk, soy hulls and wheat straw, to replace petroleum-based sources for plastics at the North Dakota State University Research and Technology Park’s seventh annual Innovation Challenge. Cody Rogness/The Forum

FARGO – Innovations in agriculture can mean more business opportunities for farmers.

Alex Sinclair wants to use ag residuals, like corn stalk, soy hulls and wheat straw, to replace petroleum-based sources for plastics.

Bonnie Cobb and Joseph Kallenbach have come up with a way to increase the market potential of corn byproducts.

The innovators are North Dakota State University students who participated in the NDSU Research and Technology Park's seventh annual Innovation Challenge.

There were five finalists in the agriculture track of the competition, including Sinclair with Bio-Tech and Cobb and Kallenbach, who took first place in the ag track with Clean the Cluck Up.

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Sinclair, a first-year graduate student in mechanical engineering, talked about replacing petroleum-based polymeric materials with bio-based nanocomposites.

"There's a tremendous market for this material," he said. "The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) actually predicts that by the year 2020 it will contribute an estimated $600 billion to the U.S. economy."

Cellulose nanofibers are typically made from paper pulp, Sinclair said.

"On a small scale here at NDSU, we can make cellulose nanofibers for use in nanocomposites out of local ag residuals," he said. "We're cost-competitive on a small scale with these other companies, so there's a lot of room to grow and there's a lot of market that we can bring here."

Cobb is a second-year graduate student in agriculture and biosystems engineering, and Kallenbach is a second-year graduate student in cereal science. They talked about developing a process to decolor corn gluten meal, a byproduct of the corn wet milling industry.

Doing so would increase the market potential of corn byproducts by increasing the amount of corn gluten meal used in chicken and fish diets, they said. Corn gluten meal is a bright yellow color, which currently causes too much pigmentation in the flesh of animals consuming the meal.

Food companies could then use the carotenoid extract as a natural food colorant, they said.

"Natural food colorants are really big right now," Kallenbach said. "A lot of companies are trying to get away from artificial colorants, so we think this could be a really good product for the food industry and help farmers as well."

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The competition, the students said, gives them the incentive to take a project beyond an idea.

"The biggest motivation is if we could actually get something to be a real-world innovation, that would be the biggest payoff," Kallenbach said.

It also offers them a lot of opportunities.

"I actually won last year in the product track," Sinclair said. "There were a lot of opportunities for me, especially by winning the competition. There were some doors opened, some contacts I was able to make. Even if you don't win, there's a lot of networking you can do and exposure you can get."

Dan Hieserich, a training coordinator for Cargill in Wahpeton, was a judge for the agriculture portion of the competition.

"It gives them the skills to be creative and to think broadly, think big picture," he said. "It teaches them the process of taking an idea through the innovation steps to end up with a marketable product or service."

He said the students' ideas were viable for the ag industry.

"The whole Innovation Challenge really honed in on identifying where there is a need in the industry," he said.

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The other agriculture track winners were Gary Ward with Ward Enterprise, who designed an ag product that serves as a self-centering device for grain storage, and Meredith Schroeder with ConveySure, who worked on a coating to prevent contamination in food processing.

First place won $5,000, second place $1,000 and third place $500.

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