Industry Watch

 AURI research takes place in all kinds of settings 

Utilized well

For some companies, there’s no better partner than the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute

A few years ago, Jeff Ackerson and Andrew Miller, the owners of Vector Windows in Fergus Falls, wanted to find a composite stiffener to use inside their windows and patio doors. Following a tip, they asked the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) for help.

The duo worked with Denny Timmerman, a senior project development director at AURI, and eventually came up with something else: a soy-based insulation they could use in their products.

Playing that kind of role is nothing new to the team at AURI. For over a quarter century, they've been exposing businesses to new ideas and technologies, finding new uses for agricultural commodities through applied research, locating new markets for value-added products, and providing access to funds and targeted networking opportunities to clients, often at no cost.

"Having a conversation about our need got us an idea at AURI," says Miller, who believes the organization is a tremendous resource for Minnesota businesses. Companies can benefit, he says, just by having a conversation with AURI and seeing where it leads.

In his case, the institute not only helped with the idea for the soy-based insulationnow called BioCore Foam Fillingbut also guided Vector Windows to other Minnesota companies that could supply the raw materials and lease the equipment for injecting the insulation. And it helped with a demonstration to show the new technique was in compliance with standards set by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Now, Vector Windows might add more biorenewable materials to their products, says Miller. The use of such materialsinstead of a petroleum-based spray foam insulation, for instancestrikes a chord with customers in the Upper Midwest.

It's slightly more expensive, but it's also about 10 to 12 percent more energy-efficient, as shown by third-party testing. Used with triple-pane glass, the BioCore Foam Filling helps the company meet the highest of the proposed Energy Star 6.0 ratings.

Deeper into science

The farm crisis of the 1980s led to the creation of AURI by the legislature in 1987. The crisis was characterized by low commodity prices, falling land values, spiraling rural debt, lower farm incomes, a glut of grains, and the drying up of farm export markets.

Today, AURI is a nonprofit that has a $5.5 million annual budget and 27 employees. Consumer demand for natural and locally sourced products is bringing more companies to its doorstep. "It's all about economic return," says Timmerman.

For its part, the institute strives to add value to Minnesota agriculture through innovation and by helping entrepreneurs and business owners reap the fruits of such innovation. In partnership with farmers and other research institutions, AURI has developed agricultural co-products, promoted bio-based energy, and improved the safety and nutritional value of foods while reducing waste and improving efficiencies.

It's about long-term economic development and job creation, says Teresa Spaeth, AURI's executive director. The institute continues the task of generating ideas, selecting the best ones, and applying them to meet the needs of small and midsize businesses. But, she says, "We have moved deeper into science to ensure we are ahead of the trend."

With the support of Minnesota's agricultural groups, AURI is working to identify priorities and potential research collaborations to benefit agriculture, an integral part of the state's economy.

That's why AURI, in partnership the USDAARS lab in St. Paul, is studying if crop residues, such as stover, straw, and cob, can be used instead of wood chips to prevent fertilizer runoffs and ground-water pollution.

In the face of high corn and soybean prices, it's also researching inexpensive nutritional livestock feeds made with undervalued agricultural co-products. For example, glycerol, a co-product of biodiesel, is being used as a corn replacement in calf diets, says Alan Doering, a senior associate scientist at AURI. The substitute provides the same energy value as corn content and can be sourced at a lower cost.

AURI provides unbiased assessments and focuses on sustainability, Spaeth says. Sometimes it's not easy to say no to a project that assessments show to be unfeasible. That's been one of many challenges for AURI, besides tight funding. Yet experts at AURI remain undeterred and continue with their mission to promote innovation.

Green chemistry

"We couldn't find a better partner than AURI," says Scott R. Bocklund, president of St. Paul–based EarthClean Corp. The institute provided support when his company was trying to develop a liquid form of its proprietary powdered concentrate, TetraKO. The product is a fire suppressant based on corn starch that can douse a fire more quickly than water and prevents rekindling, thanks to its thickening properties that allow the gel-like liquid to stick to surfaces and release a dense cooling steam. (See "Into the thick of it," page 14, October 2013.)

The problem was that TetraKO had to be batch-mixed, and it had a relatively short shelf life, AURI's Timmerman says. After the initial in-house analytical study in 2011, AURI provided a matching grant program that allowed EarthClean to connect with other research labs to provide a more stable solution that could be mixed on demand in the hose.

Now, TetraKO's liquid concentrate combines soybean oil and corn starch. "It's all green chemistry," says Bocklund.

The product is in the process of being certified by the U.S. Forest Service for use in fighting fires. For the certification, AURI helped EarthClean get matching grants from its partners, such as the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council.

Mat(ch) maker

Years ago, AURI helped Tony Schmitt and Darryl Metcalfe turn into reality their idea of producing a reasonably priced biodegradable mat—as an alternative to rubber—for use in hog farrowing and nursery barns. Rubber mats are expensive, require cleaning and disinfecting, and may potentially harbor bacteria, they reasoned.

Schmitt says he knew that the swine industry would be interested in a light-weight, pathogen-free, disposable product, but he and his partner couldn't find anybody to manufacture the mat they envisioned. Schmitt made about 100 to 200 calls from the East to the West Coast to look for a manufacturer. "It was a good idea, but nobody could make a mat for us," he says.

Then they found AURI's Doering, who immediately knew what to do. Now a cornstalk mat called Compost-a-Mat is being made by a small company in northeast Minnesota.

AURI helped create the formulations and adhesives for the mat, which in a relatively short time passed through many iterations, being tested for durability, flammability, and other qualities. Tests showed that Compost-a-Mat—as compared with rubber mats—helped decrease mortality rates for baby and weaned pigs.

The manufacturer chosen hired additional staff to produce two types of mats, one made with corn stalks and wood fiber and the other with wood by-products.

Soon Schmitt and Metcalfe's St. Joseph– based company, USA Solutions, began selling the mats through swine product distributors. Sales have been increasing every year, and last year the company sold about 300,000 mats.

Better products

Gary Noble, founder and CEO of Bio-Plastic Solutions in Blooming Prairie, sees in AURI a collaborator who fills the gaps as needed, improving production practices, developing new skill-sets, and locating funding opportunities and networking.

His company, which makes building materials from proprietary bio-polymer, has worked with AURI for about four years to create a durable, value-added resin. AURI tested a number of agriculture fibers before zeroing in on straw from wheat and soybeans. The addition of bio-mass provided an inexpensive filler that reduced the heat susceptibility of the resin, he says.

Noble believes that AURI connections with farmer groups, the larger agricultural industry, and academia can help business owners who are looking to use bio-based products or processing. For many, simply learning about how to collect biomass and store it without developing mold can be a potential catalyst to using renewable resources, he says.

In Noble's case, AURI shared its knowledge and resources to help his company make a better product. "I'm just very impressed with the group," he says.