Innovation Profile –
Dr. Jill Zullo, Cargill

Increasing sustainability for consumer goods starts with Iowa corn, expertise

A team with technical expertise, access to talent, ability to source corn from Iowa farmers and a favorable business climate and resources have all come together to make Eddyville, Iowa, the right location for a new-to-the-world production facility that will make some of the world’s best known brands more sustainable.

Cargill and HELM are the Joint Venture partners of Qore, which is building the first commercial scale renewable BDO (1,4-butanediol) facility in the United States on Cargill’s existing biotechnology campus in Eddyville. Construction began in 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2024.

The facility will produce QIRA, the next generation of BDO – an easy-to-implement, bio-based BDO made from Iowa corn. QIRA is expected to replace natural gas or coal derived BDO in a number of industries such as fashion, automotive, packaging and electronics, and its unique manufacturing process and use of renewable feedstocks is expected to generate a noticeably lower carbon footprint than conventionally-produced BDO.

“Qore is answering the call of consumers and brands for products that are produced with more sustainable material, and is the first company to scale this technology to this world-class size or magnitude,” said Jill Zullo, PhD, Global Managing Director of BioIntermediates at Cargill. “We believe that working with Iowa corn farmers to capture CO2 via photosynthesis and turn corn into widely used materials like spandex, will answer these calls.”

Qore recently announced an agreement with The LYCRA Company to produce bio-derived spandex at scale. This will result in 70% of the LYCRA® fiber content being derived from an annually renewable row crop and could potentially reduce the carbon footprint of LYCRA® fiber by up to 44%* versus equivalent product made from fossil-based resources.

“Iowa provides the right environment and incentives to attract and retain innovative businesses like Qore”, said Zullo.

“Iowa has a long history with commercializing fermentation technologies, from ethanol to citric acid to food products, and has the right ecosystem to enable the safe, efficient operation of a fermentation facility,” she said. “We source corn from farmers who are actively working to improve the sustainability and carbon footprint of their crops, and the state has invested in significant renewable energy sources which result in a lower global warming potential for our final product.”

Zullo also noted the longstanding relationship between Cargill and the Eddyville community allows them to attract and retain top talent they need to build and operate this innovative new facility. A partnership with local community colleges also builds a pipeline of talent for attracting and training new hires.

Over her 27 year career with Cargill, Zullo has held a number of research and leadership roles, and is now focused on delivering more sustainable intermediate chemicals to a variety of industries. She started her professional career in Iowa by earning a PhD from Iowa State University where she focused on fermentation processes and optimization. She started working for Cargill in Eddyville, on the R&D team with a focus on citric acid new fermentation organism and process improvements.

She also led the development of lactic acid fermentation strategy for CargillDow polymers (now called NatureWorks LLC) and worked in the Cargill Biotechnology Development Center partnering with the company’s businesses to develop new innovations in food, animal feed and industrial products.

“Partnering with these businesses helped me understand which technologies were the most economically attractive as well as partnering with end customer to ensure we deliver on their expectations,” she said. Cargill has a team of more than 70 people including molecular biologists, fermentation scientists, protein chemists and chemical engineers, co-located in Eddyville, Minneapolis and Vilvoorde, Belgium.

Zullo was recognized in February with the 2023 Biotech Leader Award presented by the Iowa Biotechnology Association. The award recognizes an individual who has demonstrated leadership within their organization and across the industry, an ability to bring innovative biotechnology products and services to the marketplace, and a commitment to advocate on behalf of Iowa’s life science sectors.

“The time is now for innovation in this space: consumers are demanding more sustainable materials, farmers are growing more sustainable crops and technology are advancing faster than ever before,” said Zullo. “Iowa has all the elements to commercialize this technology which will create jobs in rural communities and increase value for farmers’ crops … it’s a win for all!”

*Estimate from Cradle-to-Gate Screening LCA for a representative LYCRA® fiber manufacturing facility, June 2022, prepared by Ramboll US Consulting, Inc.