Mysteries Inside the Ag Lab

In addition to the mass production of penicillin, many other less-heralded products have origins in Peoria's Ag Lab.

by Jonathan Wright
The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research
Peoria's Ag Lab

“I’ve always wondered what this place is,” stated a recent post on a popular Peoria Facebook group. The person was referring to the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research on University Street, better known as the Ag Lab. Inside its walls, scientists and staff conduct groundbreaking research on functional foods, plant polymers, renewable energy and more, working to help bring ag-based technologies to market. 

Most Peorians know the mass production of penicillin was developed there, but many other less-heralded products have made it out of the Ag Lab as well, including sodium polyacrylate, a.k.a. “Super Slurper,” the absorbent material in Pampers diapers. Now, another new biobased product may soon make its way from the lab to store shelves—and it, too, involves the absorption of waste.

Scientists at the Ag Lab recently announced a cat litter formula that uses flakes of reclaimed eastern red cedar—a tree native to Illinois—as its clumping agent. To reduce offensive odors, researchers converted some of the flakes into biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance which captures volatile organic compounds, including the chief odor-causing compound in cat urine. The material was coated with food-grade mineral oil and glycerol to reduce dust, and researchers mixed in guar gum, a food-processing and binding agent, to improve its clumping ability. 

Trials show the resulting formulation fared as well as or better than several commercial products while reducing the presence of harmful dust particles. As the research team, led by scientist Steve Vaughn, works to secure a patent, they are also seeking an industrial partner to explore the commercial potential of the global pet care market—which is expected to hit $269 billion by 2025, according to one reputable estimate.

Meanwhile, the scientists at Peoria’s Ag Lab will continue quietly working away on initiatives of worldwide significance—from right here in our own community. As the aforementioned Facebook post concludes, “Peoria is a mad scientist, a city bubbling over with all sorts of historical eccentricities.” PM

Many common household products have ingredients that originated in the Peoria Ag Lab.
Many common household products have ingredients that originated in the Peoria Ag Lab.

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