One Team, One Product Many
At the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, ARS chemist
George Fanta (left) and Don Fisk, president of Uni-Star, Inc., examine foam
packing material extruded from biodegradable cornstarch.
When Peter Pan sewed his shadow onto the soles of his feet, he was amazed
that the shadow followed him everywhere he went.
And now, 23 years after Agricultural Research Service (ARS) biochemist Bill
Doane and coworkers first attached a synthetic polymer to starch molecules,
they and others in science and industry are still amazed at the impact this
piece of basic research technology has had on U.S. rural development and the
broadest range of consumers.
Doane's discoverycalled Super Slurperis capable of absorbing
hundreds of times its own weight in water. Based on a grafting technique
pioneered by ARS chemist Charles Russell in Peoria, Illinois, Super Slurper
"married starch and synthetic polymers," as Doane explains it. Super
Slurper has found commercial life over the years in products as varied as seed
coatings, wound dressings, automobile fuel filters, and plastic mesh barriers
used at construction sites.
Joining Doane on the Super Slurper development team were ARS researchers
Mary Ollidene Weaver, Edward B. Bagley, and George F. Fanta. Super Slurper
netted the team the Inventor of the Year Award from the Association for the
Advancement of Invention and Innovation in 1976, the year they also shared
USDA's Distinguished Service Award.
Doane led plant polymer research at ARS' National Center for Agricultural
Utilization Research (NCAUR) at Peoria for a decade, beginning in 1984.
He retired from the agency in January of 1995 and, in November, was inducted
into ARS' Science Hall of Famethe research agency's highest honor for
contributions to agricultural research. Doane is now employed by Bradley
University in Peoria, working under an agreement with the Biotechnology
Research and Development Corporation, which is funding the continuation of one
of Doane's research projects started at NCAUR.
During his years with ARS, Doane led research that has yielded the
technology behind a host of products. These include thickening agents,
absorbents, starch-encapsulated pesticides, starch xanthate for recovering
heavy metals from waste water, and natural components for making degradable
"More than products, Doane's transfer of starch modification
technology to commercial use has created and continues to create new markets
for millions of pounds of cornstarch," says Richard L. Dunkle, director of
ARS' Midwest Area. "A few projects are still ahead of their time, such as
degradable plastics, but current research is chipping away at some of the
barriers that have slowed down their commercialization."
Biodegradable loosefill packing material is 95 percent starch and 5 percent
For much of his career, Doane worked on products and processes that had the
potential to be commercialized. Some of them made it, and others didn't.
The one that made it big, Super Slurper, created wider markets for corn
farmers and jobs in industry. [See "Super SlurperTwo Decades and
Still Growing," Agricultural Research, January 1994, pp. 16-17.]
Born in 1973, its scientific namesaponified starch-graft
polyacrylonitrile copolymerswas too cumbersome to catch on with anyone
outside the scientific community. The name "Super Slurper" was coined
by Dean Mayberry of ARS' Information Office. The name change, coupled with
publicity, stimulated thousands of inquiries, and a multimillion-pound market
for the polymer was projected. In 1975, the polymer and its inventors received
the IR 100 Award from Industrial Research Magazine.
ARS granted about 40 nonexclusive licenses to make, use, or sell the
absorptive polymer. As soon as these licenses were granted, Doane and other
scientists at NCAUR began working actively with the licensees, providing
information on the polymer's properties and how to process it.
"The products and processes created by Doane and other Peoria
scientists caught the interest of the private sector," says Peter B.
Johnsen, NCAUR director. "Even more than the licenses that were granted to
companies using our patented technology were the many other patents developed
by the companies to extend the technology. Still, the inspiration and basic
science for technologies used in absorbent products such as disposable diapers
came from this ARS research."
A Change in Legal Climate
Other factors have evolved historically to help increase the chance ARS
scientists like Doane can have a role in getting laboratory research into the
marketplacea step that is vital to ensuring a steady flow of new uses for
The legal factors influencing technology transfer 25 years ago were entirely
different from those existing today. Although ARS has always encouraged
scientists to file patents and companies to license them, the agency was then
limited to granting only nonexclusive licenses to businesses.
So, before 1980, both government and industry leaders traveled a rocky road
from research to product development. Federal researchers were obligated to
offer their technology to everyone who asked for it.
"We were unable to grant exclusive licenses for our patented
inventions," says Johnsen. "That meant that no company could have the
exclusive right to marketand protection while recovering the cost of
developingnew-use technologies resulting from government-funded research.
As a result, companies that competed with one another had no incentive to make
significant financial investments to commercialize ARS technologies."
Even with the disincentive of nonexclusive licensing, Bill Doane firmly
believed in product development. He always listened carefully as visitors from
agribusiness discussed research and product development. He challenged his
research team to come up with creative ideas to solve their problems.
When moistened, a flake of Super Slurper captures more than 1,400 times its own
weight in water.
The potential for commercialization of agricultural research began to
blossom in 1980, when the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Actan
amendment to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Lawsgave federal laboratories
the authority to grant exclusive patent licenses to private industry.
"ARS quickly exploited this authority, and our technology transfer
activity increased," says Johnsen. The Technology Transfer Act of 1986
encouraged the agency to enter into cooperative research and development
agreements (CRADA's) that supported ARS-industry partnership. A CRADA provides
a framework for collaboration between ARS and a partner and gives the
cooperating company the first chance at exclusive licenses to use technology
that emerges from the joint effort.
"This legislation formally changed our approach, as the private sector
became much more interested in our ability to cooperate," says Johnsen.
Testimonials From Satisfied Customers
In spite of the nonexclusive licenses that were granted on the Super Slurper
technology, a few companies were formed solely to produce the polymer. One of
these was Super Absorbent Co. of Lumberton, North Carolina.
Super Absorbent founder Ed Kirkland read about Super Slurper in a 1975
issue of Agricultural Research magazine and contacted Doane. In 1978,
Kirkland began marketing Ag Sorbent, a polymer mixture that keeps tree roots
moist until trees are replanted. His clients include the growers of North
Carolina's 30,000 acres of Christmas trees.
Super Absorbent's latest endeavor is a turkey feed containing microbes
suspended in a polymer mix. The polymer provides moisture to sustain the
microbes, which in turn will potentially help turkeys fend off disease.
"Not all the microbial blends we make use the polymer originated by
ARS, but I never would have gotten into the microbe work without the
information provided by Doane, Roger Eisenhauer, and George Fanta" at the
Peoria facility, Kirkland says. He reports that gross sales of several of his
company's products now exceed $500,000 annually.
Don L. Fisk, president of Uni-Star, Inc., also praises Doane and other
scientists at the Peoria research center. Uni-Star began in Canton, Illinois,
but has relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, for easier access to bulk quantities
of cornstarch slurry from Cargill, Inc.
Absorbent products such as disposable diapers are a result of ARS ongoing
starch-utilization research program.
A former farmer, Fisk realized corn had other uses besides feed for hogs.
Still, "I probably wouldn't be in this business today if it weren't for
the support and guidance I got from Bill Doane and George Fanta. They helped
enable us to make large quantities of the starch-acrylic polymer," says
In 1992, Uni-Star began large scale testing with a Minnesota firm,
demonstrating that the polymer could be blended with starch and made into a
resilient, loosefill packaging materialthe familiar "packing
peanuts"with degradable characteristics. Today's U.S. packaging
market could easily use about 254 million pounds of starch annually.
"This success sparked my interest in studying other end-use
applications for the Super Slurper polymer," Fisk explains.
When large-scale testing began Doane and Fanta were regular visitors at
Uni-Star's facility 30 miles west of Peoria, meeting with Fisk and his
employees to help solve the problems of polymer processing and marketing. After
observing firsthand Fisk's preparation and processing steps, the scientists
suggested ways to improve the work and the quality of the end products.
Uni-Star now produces 20,000 pounds of starch graft copolymers per week and
sells them for loosefill. Fisk's goal is production of a half million pounds
per monthwith potential monthly gross sales of $350,000.
Since June of 1995, Fisk has been working under a letter of intent with
Rapac, an Oakland, Tennessee, company that produces 60 percent of the
polystyrene loosefill in the United States.
Fisk says, "Because of Bill Doane's and George Fanta's support and
technical advice, I was able to file two U.S. patents on technology and
improvements on the original work that came out of NCAUR. "I'd have given
up long ago without their help and expertise," Fisk adds. "I'm still
in contact with George, who is helping me with plastic film development."
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
When Doane and his research team began working on degradable plastics and
products based on controlled release technology, such concepts were ahead of
their time. But as market demands and concern for the environment increase and
production costs decline, more of these products are finding their way into the
"People don't realize that it isn't easy to develop a product or
change an industrial process. Every day is a slugfest; there's always Murphy's
law to contend with in the real world," says Steve Ayers, vice president
of sales marketing for Central Illinois Manufacturing Company in Bement.
Ayers' parents founded Central Illinois Manufacturing in 1956. During the
mid-1980's, the Ayers family manufactured Hydrosorb, a Super Slurper-based fuel
filter media for service station gas pumps. Though Ayers says they have since
switched to a synthetic polymer, "ARS research findings and the invaluable
support Doane and Fanta gave us helped make us a leader in the filtration
Another fan of Super Slurper is Ray Mullikin, technical sales representative
for Grain Processing Corporation of Muscatine, Iowa, which was among the first
companies to license the technology.
Products shown contain from 25 to 100 percent biodegradable
cornstarchexcept for the filter, which has a water-absorbing cornstarch
Grain Processing Corporation's superabsorbent, called WaterLock, is sold to
cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers throughout the world. WaterLock
superabsorbent polymer is a component of microbial biological control
agentsas well as an ingredient in turf mats.
Getting research off the federal shelf can create new job opportunities.
Just ask Richard R. Tryon, president of Agri-Tech Industries at Champaign,
After 31 years as a printer and publisher, Tryon decided to try his hand at
making degradable, starch-based plastics for American industry. Tryon's
inspiration came from ARS chemist Felix Otey, who, under Bill Doane's
leadership, discovered that blending cornstarch, an acrylic acid polymer, and
polyethylene would form a degradable plastic film. The invention was patented
by USDA and licensed by Agri-Tech in 1986.
"Bill Doane supported and encouraged us when we were first getting
started. He gave freely of his time and resources," says Tryon. It's just
as easy to find fellow scientists at the Peoria research center who admire Bill
Doane. He is known as the kind of research leader who "taught us to care
and focus on what we were doing," says Rodney Bothast, who is now leader
of fermentation research at NCAUR. "Bill encouraged us to follow through
with our work. And he always used a great deal of common sense in his approach
to people and to research."
Doane is also remembered for letting fellow scientists enjoy the limelight,
according to ARS coworker Baruch Shasha, a friend and colleague since the two
attended graduate school together at Purdue University in West Lafayette,
"He genuinely enjoys seeing others succeed and win, even if it means a
smaller role for him," says Shasha, who joined the NCAUR Plant Polymer
Research Unit in 1963. Doane's winnings are the fruits of his agricultural
researcha benefit to American consumers, as well as to industry, says
area director Dunkle.
"While the products that resulted from his research merit our
admiration, so too do the larger goals he achieved: a cleaner environment, more
jobs for people, and new markets for hundreds of millions of pounds of
cornstarch." By Linda Cooke, ARS.
For more information, contact
B. Johnsen, USDA-ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research,
1815 N. University Street, Peoria, IL 61604; phone (309) 685- 4011
"One Team, One Product -- Many Uses" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.