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Helping the world develop a more sustainable future: Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True

Helping the world develop a more sustainable future: Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True

Published 06-15-01

Submitted by Cargill Dow LLC

As an elementary school student, Dr. Pat Gruber and his classmates were asked to write essays detailing what they would like to be when they grew up. Most offered up the expected results a few wanted to become firemen; some professional athletes while others yearned to become doctors. Gruber went the next step, detailing a plan in which he wanted to succeed in business and invent something that was useful. And, based on the worldwide acceptance of his invention to make commercially viable plastic out of corn a reality, it appears he is achieving his dream.

Now, some three decades after handing in that essay, it proudly hangs framed on the wall in Gruber’s corner office next to his 40 some patents as a tribute to the power of dreams, and as an inspiration for things to come. Gruber, vice president and chief technology officer for Cargill Dow LLC, has just been named a recipient of the Discover Award for Environmental Innovation, presented by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.

The Discover Award is one in a series of an impressive array Gruber and Cargill Dow have racked up since formally launching the NatureWorks PLA technology last year. Gruber’s work has been recognized with a Popular Mechanics’ Design and Engineering Award, an Industry Week’s Technology of the Year Award and the Department of Energy’s Office of Industrial Technologies (OIT) Technology of the Year Award.

"It’s an honor to be presented with an award that essentially is a result of me fulfilling my childhood dream," said Gruber, whose development has been widely recognized by industry peers. "I wanted to do something that would change the world for the better, and had realistic and substantial business applications to encourage its widespread use."

Discover honored Gruber for NatureWorks PLA, a technology that harnesses the carbon naturally stored in plants through the process of photosynthesis to create a polymer that can be used for common consumer items such as clothing, cups, food containers, candy wrappers, as well as home and office furnishings. This new polymer uses annually renewable resources such as corn or wheat to create the natural polymer, called polylactide or PLA.

Gruber began development of NatureWorks PLA about 12 years ago while working as a research scientist for Cargill, Inc. He started its development as a small-scale research project, exploring new uses for corn matter derived from corn wet milling processes often brewing solutions and running experiments on his own stove after hours and on the weekends. Specifically, he was looking for a renewable resource-based product that offered competitive value and would lead to substantial market size.

He succeeded on both accounts. NatureWorks creates numerous advantages for the environment, including the reduction of dependence on oil to create polymers by using 20 percent to 50 percent less fossil resources. In addition, Gruber’s team of researchers perfected the physical properties of the PLA to the point where it is now actively competing with traditional materials in packaging and fiber applications throughout the world. And, based on the technology’s success and promise, NatureWorks PLA has served as the basis for the creation of a stand-alone company, Cargill Dow LLC, that is quickly becoming a premier player in the polymers market.

The Discover Award follows last year’s announcement of a world-scale PLA plant being built by Cargill Dow. The state-of-the-art plant being constructed in Blair, Neb., is the first of its kind and will produce more than 300 million pounds of PLA each year. The plant’s opening will bring tremendous expansion of NatureWorks PLA in the polymers market by making PLA available on a commercial scale.

"The honor that Discover has bestowed upon Pat Gruber and Cargill Dow affirms the significant impact NatureWorks PLA is making in the chemical, fiber and plastic industries," said Randy Howard, president of Cargill Dow. "We’re proud to be a big part of the new industrial revolution that is changing lives for the better."

In 1990 Discover Magazine launched the Awards for Technological Innovation. There were six categories and 27 finalists. Discover acknowledges the creativity of the men, women, corporations and institutions who have reached superior levels of ingenuity.

Discover (on the Web at is the country's leading general-interest science and technology magazine. Each month it reaches more than seven million new generation thought leaders: men and women who understand the personal power, comprehend the vast proliferation, and are eager to harness the potential of today's scientific and technological world.

Founded in 1997, Cargill Dow LLC is based in Minnetonka, Minn. It is the first company to offer its customers a family of polymers derived entirely from annually renewable resources with the cost and performance necessary to compete with packaging materials and traditional fibers. The company has achieved this breakthrough by applying its unique technology to the processing of natural plant sugars to create a proprietary polylactide polymer (PLA). Future applications of the technology could include use in injection blow molded bottles, foams, emulsions and chemical intermediaries. For more company information, please visit the Cargill Dow Web site at

Cargill Dow LLC

Cargill Dow LLC

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