By: Låkril Technologies
Corn and Sustainability
Consumers are increasingly looking for sustainable solutions. Corn might be the answer. At Låkril Technologies, we have found a way to leverage corn-based sugar to create sustainable chemicals.
It all began with a conversation between Låkril co-founders Chris Nicholas and Paul Dauenhauer. Paul, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at University of Minnesota, had an interesting catalytic discovery in his lab about two years ago. Paul and his team were able to convert lactic acid to acrylic acid and acrylates at high yields using a custom catalyst. Acrylic acid and acrylates (together, acrylics) are used in a variety of products from diapers to paints. Chris and Paul got together to discuss potential applications and market appeal of the technology. Soon after, Låkril Technologies was launched.
Making Lactic Acid
The US produces 14 billion bushels of corn per year. Most of that production is concentrated in the Midwest, where population density is low and farm productivity high. Corn, as biomass, is trucked to regional milling facilities located near the farm. Ethanol, corn syrup, and corn starch are among products made at these facilities. At certain milling facilities, corn-derived sugars are collected and used as feedstock for fermentation reactors. Lactic acid is a product of that fermentation.
Lactic acid has been fermented sustainably at commercial scale since the 1880s from a diverse range of biomass-derived sugars, with corn as the primary source. Lactic acid is produced globally via fermentation, with over 250 thousand metric tons per year produced in the United States.
The acrylic acid industry is a large and growing market estimated at around $10 billion. It supports a range of products including paints, coatings, and even superabsorbent polymers used in diapers. These products are highly formulated such that replacing acrylic acid would be difficult.
Today, acrylics are made from petroleum. For each 1 kg of acrylic made, about 2.5 kg of CO2 is released as well. At Låkril, our technology lets us produce acrylics with at least a 35% reduction in CO2 emissions. And we can do this at cost parity with petrochemicals. We will sustainably produce bio-based acrylic acid and drop them into existing formulations that companies use today.
Farm Resilience and Rural High-Paying Jobs
Our technology provides resilience for farm families across rural America through new industrial uses for the US’ largest crop. Production facilities using our technology will be built close to the farm. These plants will provide high-quality, well-paying STEM jobs in rural locations across the Midwest.
In North America, corn is the dominant sugar source. 600 million bushels of corn could potentially displace petroleum for acrylic acid and acrylate derivatives production, with about 2 million bushels at each corn-to-acrylic plant. This lends resilience to corn growers with access to a new downstream market. Commercializing our high yield lactic-to-acrylic technology will help grow the industrial chemicals portion of corn utilization.
Where We Are Today
At Låkril Technologies we are working on three missions to commercialization. 1) Scaling our catalyst technology from the university scale in grams to pilot scale in kilograms. This is planned for completion at the end of this year. 2) Conceptual process engineering to characterize and eliminate risk within our separations process. This part of the process ensures our acrylic acid produced is at the necessary purity for industrial use. 3) Building out our continuous pilot plant in 2023. This will help us demonstrate and showcase our technology.
Along with support from MI Corn, we have also been awarded a USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for our innovative biobased technology, helping to provide opportunity and diversification for the agriculture industry. It is because of this support like this that we are able to progress this significant frontier.
Here at Låkril Technologies, we are very excited to bring a sustainable supply of acrylic acid and acrylates to today’s market. Supporting rural America along the way makes it all the more worthwhile.
Upon completion of this research cycle, the results of this research will be published in the CMPM annual research report, which will be released in early 2023.