Field of Study

Research by Memphis Bioworks Foundation and Agricenter International includes groundbreaking ideas like turning sugar into oil.

photograph by Susan Leggett | Dreamstime

The drive from Memphis to Forrest City, Arkansas, along I-40 is 39 miles of nothing to most passersby. Flat, flaxen fields stretch to the horizon with only the occasional billboard or gas station to interrupt the view. In winter, the already barren landscape turns a dismal gray.

It’s a long drive for those who forget their iPods.

But to scientists in agricultural innovation it might just be a gold mine in the not-to-distant future.

From the Bootheel of Missouri to the plains of northern Louisiana, the wide, somewhat jagged swath of the Mississippi River Delta represents some of the most fertile farm lands in the United States — a region with a unique climate and history whose resources are yet largely untapped, says William Stubblefield, director of the AgBioworks Regional Initiative for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

But he’s not talking about cotton, rice, or soybeans, the historic regional crops whose market values have slumped in recent decades.

Non-food crops, whose oils can be used to replace petroleum in plastics and other products, may someday be the new cotton of the Delta.

“There is a wave of new technologies across the planet in the biotech sector,” says Dr. Steven Bares, president and executive director of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation. “You see it in the healthcare world. That same technology is transforming the agriculture sector at the same time.”

Memphis Bioworks Foundation currently occupies several floors of a nondescript high-rise that blends in easily with the surrounding towers of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Medical District. Several floors are filled with laboratories, but the ninth floor office suite resembles the lobby of a contemporary boutique hotel, with soft lighting, glassy office walls, and organic art.

The foundation was established in 2001 by its current board chair and the founder of AutoZone, Pitt Hyde. Bares was its first employee, back when the organization was little more than Bares and his cell phone.

Its mission is to fuel entrepreneurship through the economic development of biosciences, specifically within Memphis and the Delta, while providing research, development, and educational opportunities for businesses.

As a public/private partnership, it brings together government entities at all levels, nonprofits, and startup businesses, some of whom are incubated within the foundation’s own walls.

The hope is to find connections between the Delta’s farmlands, Memphis’ strong logistics industry, a new generation of scientists working to innovate renewable resources, and thousands of people who want good jobs in the manufacturing sector.

The world is responding to a rising population with increasing needs and at the same time realizing that its current energy practices are not environmentally sustainable, Bares says. “We looked at those two trends and the Memphis region and said we have a role in that.”

Stubblefield points to a 70-acre plot at Agricenter International at Shelby Farms Park, which the foundation is using to study the potential of sweet sorghum sugar. Sorghum used to be farmed to make molasses, a labor-intensive process which is little more than a cottage industry these days.

A pilot-scale processing plant, which began in a lab on the fourth floor of the Bioworks’ building, sits near the acreage and employs 10 people to squeeze the sugar out of the sorghum and ferment it to make ethanol.

“Sugar is the new oil,” Bares says. “We all know you can ferment sugar into ethanol, but that’s not the highest and best use. They can input [sugar] into bacteria and that can be tailored to generate the chemicals we need to replace oil.”

The United States doesn’t have a natural cane sugar industry like equatorial nations such as Brazil and India, both of which are already producing sugar for non-food purposes.

“The real opportunity [for the United States] is for sweet sorghum and sugar beets,” Bares says. “I look at the sugar molecule as the precursor to the kinds of materials used in everything from bottles and other products. That’s the opportunity we’re going after.”

As a case in point, Stubblefield offers a plastic bottle of Dasani water, a product owned by Coca-Cola. The bottle was made with 30 percent plant-based materials and sports a green leaf to advertise that fact.

But production of sugar isn’t yet plentiful enough in the U.S. to unseat cheaper sugar markets in other countries, so manufacturing those bottles hasn’t played into Memphis’ economy — yet.

“We think that sweet sorghum could be a component to start making these bottles in the U.S.,” Stubblefield says. “We’re not there yet, but that’s an example of the chemical opportunity.”

Oil-based products is a trillion-dollar industry, and like most industries, it is concerned about the rising cost of petroleum. Bares estimates that two-thirds of that market could be replaced by plants in time.

It will take seasons of proven success before farmers — a pragmatic bunch, says Bares — agree to try their hand at new innovative crops. That 70-acre plot at the Agricenter is not large enough to prove the marketability of the sugar. The foundation will need to convince farmers of 1,000-plus acre farms to get on board.

That will take years, but once the ball starts rolling, the manufacturing sector will enter quickly. And sugar isn’t the only prospect. Non-edible winter seed oil, grown in fields during the off-season, also grow well in the Delta, and they help prevent soil erosion.

“We don’t have a good oil processor here,” Stubblefield says. “It will come as the acreage comes up. The winter oil seeds are tiny, smaller than a BB, so you can’t use the same processing equipment [as for edible oils]. But as you begin to grow 100,000 or 200,000 acres, somebody’s going to say, hmm, that’s a business opportunity.”

Stubblefield notes Memphis has corn processing plants that turn corn from Midwest farms into corn syrup. Corn doesn’t grow well in the Delta, but it is easily shipped in by rail or truck, then processed here and shipped back out. If Delta region farm products were being processed in Memphis manufacturing plants, a new sector of jobs would result.

Still, petroleum-consuming industries are pushing the need to develop bio-based products.

“FedEx buys 1.3 billion gallons of jet fuel worldwide and they have a five percent objective for renewables,” Bares says. “That’s 65 million gallons.”

Asked whether farm products would feature any less of roller coaster than petroleum prices, Bares says both have their variables — a drought like last year’s which devastated corn crops, for example — but, well, crops don’t explode in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think the bigger risk is the price of oil,” Bares says.

Speaking of the drought, Stubblefield says that the genetics of corn are being explored so that drought-resistant corn might be developed. The genomes for non-edibles haven’t really been explored yet, but could be.
For now that’s a wide open field.


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