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11/30/2003 - SIRTI Showcases Techno Cornucopia

SIRTI's fifth technology showcase featured just a few of the Inland Northwest's agriculture research and development projects. Titled "A New Harvest: Advances in Northwest Agricultural Technology," agriculture research scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) at the Tri-Cities, University of Idaho, and Washington State University at Pullman talked about their ongoing research.

According to SIRTI Director Patrick Tam, the Technology Showcase was organized for several reasons. Foremost is to convince both the Inland Northwest and the world beyond that we have a very strong, very innovative technology base here. A second reason was to showcase the plight of current agribusiness. Today's agriculture industry is intensely competitive and to stay competitive, it must find new uses for agriculture products, as well as new markets for traditional and new products. Through technological advancements, area scientists are creating new uses for traditional crops, and they are devising new products using the waste products of traditional manufacturing processes. SIRTI's role is to assist and facilitate technology transfer between the scientific discovery and the technology entrepreneur.

The speakers included Representative Jeff Morris who is Chair of the Washington State House Committee On Technology, Telecommunications And Energy, and is also the director of the Northwest Energy Technology Collaborative; Dennis Stiles, PE, Program Manager, Bio-Based Products PNNL; Matthew Morra, PhD, Professor of Soil Biochemistry, U I; and Clarence "Bud" Ryan, PhD, Charlotte Y. Martin Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, WSU. Dr. Ryan cautioned that basic research is done for the body of knowledge --- not for the creation of saleable products --- and the time between the beginning of research and the emergence of a commercial product can be a very long time.

Ryan cited his research as a case in point. His work, titled Proteinase Inhibitor Applications in Agriculture and Human Health, is with proteinase inhibitors in plants, and he has been working in this field for a dozen years. "Proteinase inhibitors," he explained, "are plants natural insect repellants." The insect attacking a plant causes the plant to produce an abundance of proteinase inhibitors, which causes the insect to "feel full" and stop eating. Ryan's research has suggested three commercial possibilities. One, an appetite suppressant for humans, is in the final stages of becoming commercially available. Exploiting the natural production of proteinase inhibitors, possibly through genetic modification, was another commercial possibility. They have also found that these inhibitors also act as a preventative agent for ultra-violet based skin cancers. Although research in this area is ongoing, a sunscreen could be a possible commercial product.

Dr. Morra's paper, Pesticides from Mustard Meal: Making Biodiesel Profitable, reported on work with plants of the Brassica family. This includes mustard, canola, rapeseed, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. He made the production of biodiesel sound trivial. Crush the seed, oil comes out, combine it with alcohol using a Potassium Hydroxide catalyst, and you have diesel fuel --- diesel fuel that powers a diesel engine.

It's so simple; it isn't the subject that interests Morra. He's much more interested in the meal that is left after the oil and mustard flour for making of condiment mustard have been extracted. This mustard seed meal contains a natural pesticide, isothiocyanate, which can be used in the organic food industry. Mustard meal is also useful as a pesticide for house plants and as slug bait. Mustard meal is also a natural herbicide, so some care must be taken when using in the garden.

According to the paper by Dennis Stiles, PNNL has a fully tested technology prototype ready for commercial development. Speaking about Biomass & Bioenergy Research at PNNL, Stiles reported on their work in producing energy using alternative sources such as lower-value agricultural products, wood by-products, and waste products from food production. These waste products may be the liquid waste from potato processing, manure from a feed lot, or the spent grain left after beer brewing. Depending on the source of biomass, their prototype biorefinery produces both liquid and gaseous fuel including ethanol, methane, hydrogen, methanol, and ammonia, with by-products that include carbon dioxide and clean water. "It's time to move it out of the laboratory," says Stiles. With SIRTI's help, an entrepreneur from the private sector may take advantage of this opportunity.

Billie Moreland
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