A Kansas University research team has been awarded $5.6 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find a more environmentally friendly way to develop chemicals used in many everyday products.
Bala Subramaniam is a KU distinguished professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and the director of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis at KU. He led the research team that received one of seven grants awarded by the USDA from about 300 applications.
KU will partner with Archer Daniels Midland, headquartered in Decatur, Ill., as part of the project. KU and ADM will invest $1.4 million in matching funds for the grant.
The grants were announced as part of an effort to advance clean energy efforts and as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Subramaniam said many chemicals necessary for products we use every day — plastics, laundry detergents and bathroom cleaners — are made in a process that uses petroleum. The new research will look for ways the same chemicals can be made using bio-based products such as nonfood crops and agricultural leftovers.
“This is the only sustainable option for making these chemical products in the long term,” Subramaniam said.
Today, about 90 percent of the world’s petroleum goes toward fuel and about 10 percent toward making these kinds of chemicals, he said. But that process is financially lucrative — the 10 percent of crude oil devoted toward chemicals can bring 60 to 70 percent of the profits, he said.
That means that if the research is successful in even a few of the targeted chemicals, it could mean new revenue streams are opened for biorefining companies, he said.
As with any grant, the money means KU will be able to hire more researchers and more postdoctoral fellows, but Subramaniam said this research could have additional significant impacts on the rural Kansas economy.
It gets expensive fast to transport biomass over long distances, so the potential exists in Kansas to create a new kind of industry around this sort of chemical refining process, Subramaniam said.
“We could be a powerhouse with the potential for green manufacturing,” said Julie Goonewardene, KU’s associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship.
She also said the partnership with ADM is another strong indication that the research holds the potential for success.
Companies try to align themselves with the very best faculty in the field, Goonewardene said.
“With Bala, they’re basically saying: ‘We want access to him and the research that he’s doing,’” she said.
And if they would like the opportunity to license the technologies later, they will have an opportunity to do so, along with any other potentially interested companies, she said.