When it comes to corn, the imagery that typically comes to mind is the sweet vegetable’s placement in a summer meal – but research shows that corn can be so much more.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, sweet corn makes up less than 1 percent of the total corn produced in the U.S. Overwhelmingly, corn is grown with the intentional purpose of being used for animal feed, ethanol, and other industrial purposes. This type of corn, known as field or dent corn, can be used as a feedstock in the replacement of some of the fossil-based resources often used in fashion.
The LYCRA Company is harnessing the power of dent corn with its exciting new collaboration with Qore®, a joint venture between Cargill, experts in agricultural fermentation, and HELM, a German chemical company. Qore® has created QIRA®, the key ingredient that will enable the world’s first large-scale commercial production of bio-derived LYCRA® fiber.
To produce QIRA®, Qore® will start with dent corn grown from within a 100-mile radius of their production site currently being built in Iowa. The corn kernels then get broken down or fractionated into distinct parts (protein, starch and oil) with the outputs contributing to food or feed and materials applications. In effect, the use of field corn reframes the industry’s debate over food vs. fiber to the idea of food and fiber. It’s an important distinction, one that is made even more clear in research from the Nova Institute, which finds that “at present, the world is mainly short of protein and not of carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. This means that there is no real competition with food uses since the valuable parts of the food crops still flow into food and feed uses.”
To make renewable LYCRA® fiber from QIRA®, The LYCRA Company will replace one of the main fossil-based ingredients (1,4-Butanediol or BDO) with the equivalent offering made from annually renewable field corn instead of petroleum.
“Agriculture is the backbone of QIRA® and is how we can offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional BDO that is derived from finite resources,” said Jon Veldhouse, chief executive officer of Qore®. “The facility to produce QIRA® is being built in central Iowa and will benefit from working closely with our raw material supplier Cargill who promotes continuous improvement in the sustainability of field corn production including more regenerative farming practices.”
As part of The LYCRA Company’s sustainability plan, the QIRA® ingredient will account for up to 70 percent of the LYCRA® fiber content. And by using corn grown in Iowa as its feedstock, Qore®, The LYCRA Company and the entire distribution chain can realize the benefits of an annually renewable feedstock that does not require irrigation. In addition, the Qore® production facility will run mainly on wind power.
When compared to spandex made with traditional raw materials, LYCRA® fiber made with QIRA® has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 44 percent*.
“As part of our Planet Agenda framework and sustainability goals, we are committed to delivering products that help our apparel and personal care customers reduce their footprint,” said Julien Born, chief executive officer of The LYCRA Company. “We are especially pleased to collaborate with Qore®, a company that shares our vision for innovative, sustainable solutions. Their expertise in operating fermentation processes and understanding of the chemical value chains makes them the ideal partner to help develop a bio-derived LYCRA® fiber at commercial scale.”
Importantly, bio-derived materials represent a tremendous opportunity to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and the GHG emissions that contribute to global warming, and when sourced responsibly, the production of bio-derived materials also supports farmers and ecosystems. Responsible farming and sourcing are key to attaining the full benefits of the renewable materials with impacts being concentrated at the beginning phase of the life cycle.
Production of QIRA® is scheduled to begin at the Qore® facility at Cargill’s biotechnology campus and corn refining operation in Eddyville, Iowa at the end of 2024. LYCRA® fiber created with QIRA® will be available shortly after in 2025.
*Estimate from Cradle-to-Gate Screening LCA for a representative LYCRA® fiber manufacturing facility, June 2022, prepared by Ramboll US Consulting, Inc.