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Innovative plant-based products promise a greener future for manufacturing 

March 09, 2016

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the trailers brought in to house New Orleans’ displaced residents began emitting hazardous levels of formaldehyde when they got wet. After the binder used to glue the insulation in the trailers was found to be the cause, the major suppliers of the insulation began proactively developing new products to address the health risk.

One of these manufacturers, Owens Corning, called on Cargill to help it create a more environmentally friendly bio-based binder for its insulation.

Cargill, a longtime provider of food, agriculture, and industrial products and services, in recent decades has also become a leader in developing innovative, renewable and sustainable ways to help its customers adopt “green” principles and lower their carbon footprints.

“We knew that if we could solve this problem using a natural product, it would be a win-win for the residents, the suppliers and the industry,” said Kurtis Miller, president of Cargill Industrial Specialties (CIS). The industry could see how renewable solutions can actually solve tough application challenges in a manner that is also economically feasible.

In short order, Miller’s group developed a formaldehyde-free insulation binder that replaced the hazardous binder material resulting in EcoTouch®, an innovative, bio-based product developed for Owens Corning. EcoTouch insulation uses starch derivatives to bind glass fibers. Within 18 months, Owens Corning implemented the CIS bio-based binder in several plants, with full conversion in all its remaining North American plants the following year. Innovative solutions, such as this insulation fix, are CIS’s bread and butter. Or, rather, its breakfast: “Every morning,” Miller said,” we wake up thinking, ‘How do we replace petroleum and potentially harmful chemicals with sustainable, renewable solutions for our customers?’”

Consumers, industry go green

Both consumers and industry are driving the trend toward adopting environmentally friendly solutions to global challenges. Consumers now expect products to be more renewable and sustainable. They are holding companies to a higher standard when they shop at the supermarket or home improvement store, seeking out brands that already offer green products.

“The trend,” Miller said, “is our friend.”

However, green solutions must also be cost-effective and perform as well as existing products. As a result, CIS looks for opportunities that offer a win-win for the company and its customers.

One such opportunity presented itself in Mumbai, India, which ranks as the world’s third most densely populated urban area, with more than 22 million residents. There, electric power companies face considerable space restraints, as well as government requirements for more efficient transformers.

In 2013, Tata Power Company Ltd. began collaborating with Cargill’s dielectric fluids team to develop a compact 25 MVA transformer filled with a product called Envirotemp™ FR3™ transformer fluid. It’s a natural ester fluid that is renewable and biodegradable, with high-temperature capabilities and improved fire safety characteristics that make it a powerful resource for traditional grids. At the same time, it delivers increased capacity and reduces transformers’ spatial and carbon footprints. It enabled cost savings for the company of some 16 percent.

Infrastructure challenges, solutions

In the United States, the state of the nation’s infrastructure poses a more widespread challenge. Time and weather have been particularly hard on 2.4 million miles of paved roads that are surfaced in asphalt, an aggregate of stone, sand, gravel and asphalt cement (the tar that binds all the components together). The latter material produces greenhouse gas emissions when laid down. Much of the American road system requires repairs in the form of new layers of asphalt.

In response, CIS developed its line of Anova™ Asphalt Solutions for modifying asphalt to enhance the performance and to extend the life, making it more environmentally friendly. The product line features a product called Anova Rejuvenator that uses modified vegetable oils and other bio-based agricultural components from Cargill’s domestic resources to restore oxidized and cracked asphalt surfaces. Road crews can take existing asphalt, grind it up, add Rejuvenator, then lay it back down—in effect recycling up to 60 percent of road surfaces.

“Cargill is leading the industry in this field, and I think we’ll be revolutionary in how we go about preserving and recycling the current infrastructure in this country,” Miller said. “Restoring it is very expensive, and local communities can’t always afford reconstruction. But if we can bring a road back to life and extend its usefulness for another 10 to 15 years, that’s pretty exciting for us.”

Leading the way to a greener future

Under Miller’s leadership, CIS turned a small business within the company into the world’s leading bio-based transformer fluid manufacturer, built a world-class sustainable product development process with a 40 percent growth rate, and captured a significant share of the U.S. market in the bio-based binder business.

Today, Cargill’s CIS is looking to provide high-performing, renewable solutions for customers in more than a dozen industries. In the near future, Miller said, “You’ll see us playing in almost every space.” That should be welcome news for anyone concerned about the planet.

Tom Connor is a custom content business writer specializing in technology, entrepreneurism, health & wellness and sustainability, among other topics.

EcoTouch is a registered trademark of Owens Corning.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.