Soybeans

Green soybeans

If scientists dealt in magic and imagination rather than realism or innovation, what persistent agricultural production problem would be the first to go?

Scientists with the Kansas Polymer Research Center and Virigina Tech’s Macromolecular Innovation Institute are hoping to answer this question and many others with a joint program at Pittsburg State University in February. Entitled “Farmers Accelerating Research in Materials Science,” the program is positioned to be a collaborative think tank between chemists, engineers and agricultural producers.

“The idea is for us to talk to farmers and ask about every challenge they have or even foresee coming along,” said Tim Dawsey, executive director of the Kansas Polymer Research Center. “Then we’ll take a look and figure out which of those problems our scientists could help with.”

The Kansas Polymer Research Center works primarily with bio-made polymers — turning vegetable oils and byproducts into usable materials like polyethylene. Most notably, the center developed BiOH polyol, a foam produced from soybean oil.

“In 2007 BiOH polyol was introduced by Ford into their 2007 Mustang, and in 2009 it was in every Ford Escape made,” Dawsey said. “Today, every vehicle that Ford makes in North America has this technology in it and it was all developed here.”

For more than 25 years, the Kansas Polymer Research Center has used agricultural products from soybeans to coffee-bean grounds to create innovative products to solve problems from lightweight carbon-based batteries to better plastics.

“We’re known for bio-based research, not just with soybeans but with any vegetable oil you can think of,” Dawsey said. “We have core competencies in bio-based materials and these materials work nicely in developing polyurethanes.”

Today, the center hopes their next big project can be targeted to help the people who produce their core agricultural components while supporting the local economy.

“We’re right in the middle of an agricultural economy that is subject to every natural disaster that comes along, whether that’s drought, flood infestations, or even hail,” Dawsey said. “One of the options here is to diversify farmers’ opportunities with technology.”

Southeast Kansas is an area where the scientists saw opportunity for maximum impact in an area with a wide variety of agricultural crops to be utilized and problems to be solved.

“The intent here is for us to meet with agricultural producers — as broad a group as possible from the Four State area — and spend all day with them in breakout sessions around key topics,” Dawsey said. “We’ll have county agents working as facilitators and essentially what we want to do is listen to every kind of problem you can imagine that farmers deal with every day.”

The program will include three days with various phases from Feb. 26-28. It will begin with a reception on Feb. 26 to introduce the Virgina Tech scientists to the area and to build a comfort level between the scientists and producers for the following day.

Feb. 27 is the key day for producer involvement. The FARMS program hopes to involve 75 to 100 producers in their initial breakout sessions to establish a good baseline. Anyone involved in any area of agricultural production is invited to attend — from dairies to crop producers.

“Let’s pretend we can do anything in the world and then we’ll narrow it down,” Dawsey said. “We’ll bring reality into it after we identify the problems, so initially we’ll operate as if science is really magic and we can accomplish anything.”

During the Feb. 27 breakout sessions, the scientists will listen to facilitated discussions based on key topics to be addressed the following day during a scientists-only problem-solving session. Because the team will include scientists in a wide variety of specialties, the FARMS program will align scientists with expertise in critical areas to each identified problem.

“We want to hear the whole problem so we can address problems, not just symptoms,” Dawsey said. “We want to discover ways material science — plastics and polymers —can be leveraged to help the agricultural industry.”

For Dawsey, ideas are born in information exchanges similar to the one the Kansas Polymer Research Institute is facilitating.

“Either way, we are creating manufacturing jobs, reducing waste and developing value-added options for agricultural products,” Dawsey. “The beauty when you get scientists together with the farmers is the joint creation of new concepts.”

The Kansas Polymer Research business is uniquely able to accomplish solutions for the problems they identify because the center has a track record for developing industry-ready technology.

“Our hope is that we are developing technology that doesn’t require a push into the market but rather a pull that says ‘We need this,’” Dawsey said. “I refer to what we do as applied, or industrially relevant, science.”

For Dawsey, the partnership between scientists and farmers is a uniquely symbiotic partnership sure to mesh in real-world problem solving with the highly technical world of chemistry.

“Farmers and ranchers are inherently creative,” Dawsey said. “If you look at the things producers make work in complicated situations, you’ll see that they have that natural innovative skillset.” For more information or to register for the FARMS event visit pittstate.edu/FARMS.

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